Iterated playlists in iTunes

iTunes doesn’t make it easy to build playlists with multiple iterations of the same track. You can do it; but with every addition iTunes puts up a dialog box and asks you if you indeed intent to do it. It’s an annoyance.

I wrote a short AppleScript that allows you to build a playlist built with multiple iterations of a group of selected tracks. The script allows you to specify the name of the playlist and how the tracks are to be added (all of the iterations of one track back-to-back [AAABBBCCC] or repetitions of each group of tracks. [ABCABCABC]) Read more after the break.

Read More

Recycling is a distraction

John Tierney, writing in the New York Times:

to reduce carbon emissions, you’ll accomplish a lot more by sorting paper and aluminum cans than by worrying about yogurt containers and half-eaten slices of pizza. Most people also assume that recycling plastic bottles must be doing lots for the planet. They’ve been encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency, which assures the public that recycling plastic results in less carbon being released into the atmosphere.

But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.

Recycling many products, especially plastic and metal is enormously expensive and it does not necessarily offset the environmental effects of alternative means of handling the waste. Mostly it’s a distraction. It’s a form of absolution. Like the guy who builds an enormous mansion and slaps an array of photovoltaics on the roof. He will never recoup the energy expended in converting raw materials to building products and assembling them into a house.

Not consuming in the first place side-steps the issue entirely. We need to consume less. But since the “not consuming” lobby is non-existent we’ll never see structural solutions, only individual behaviors.

On not linking to Amazon

After reading a series of pieces including a recent article in the New York Times about the deplorable work conditions at Amazon, I’ve decided to make a policy against linking to Amazon.

It’s commonplace in the blogging work to link to Amazon when referencing books and other media so that readers can be sure of exactly which item the author is referring to. Effective today, I’m no longer providing links to products distributed by Amazon. Instead, I’ll endeavor to be as specific about authors and titles as I can.

While I am in awe of the diversity of products offered by the company and the speed with which it can deliver products, the costs are too great. Here are my concerns. TL;DR; - You should obtain books from your local public library.

What do I have against Amazon?

Privacy

In order to purchase anything from Amazon, you must identify yourself to the company. For this reason, they know about your reading habits. All of them. Eric Snowden has made it clear that the NSA is well aware of what anyone is reading by virtue of its connections to Amazon. In the same way that Facebook and other social media giants create robust sets of data about your life, dislikes and social connections, Amazon is creating an enormous knowledge base about your reading interests. If you are going to purchase books you should do so with cash and without identifying yourself.

Treatment of employees

Amazon is a bully. Not only with competitors, but with its own employees. Warehouse employees are know to labor under brutal physical conditions, subjected all the while to continual electronic surveillance lest they fail to meet their quota. The company has a system that is widely used by employees to sabotage one another. In so doing, it acts like a promoter of social Darwinism where only the most ruthless sociopaths can survive. By all accounts it is a horrible, dehumanizing place to work.

Purchasing most books is waste of resources

I suspect that most books are read 0-1 times. Therefore, private ownership of most books is a waste of resources. Shipping of small numbers of items long distances is a waste of fuel. Local production, distribution and consumption will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and ultimately reduce the impact on the environment.

Economics

Both collective and personal economics are harmed by Amazon. The ease with which individuals can purchase books from Amazon encourages them to buy more. The recommendation engine built on top of the massive amount of data individuals unwittingly give up is designed for one purpose - to encourage you to buy more. In the collective, Amazon is known - like many big companies - to evade taxes.

What does Amazon care about books?

Amazon may have started as an online bookseller; but it has long since made itself into something much larger (and at the same time lesser…) Amazon is a product distributor. They are in the business of delivering physical stuff to you. It does not really concern itself with books per se except to the extent that they have economic value.

Monopolies are bad

Amazon is an undisputed monopoly in the product distribution business online. They operate in many of the same ways as the equally-unsavory WalMart. In the process of driving down prices on the consumer side, they squeeze margins upstream. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for Amazon to use its monopolistic power to fundamentally shape what gets written and published through “evidence-based” feedback loops.

Alternatives

Where possible you should obtain books from your local library. The local public library is one of the few remaining egalitarian institutions left in our society. When I visit our local library, I see persons of every socioeconomic group, every ethnic group. There are no distinction made between persons. We should support a place like this wholeheartedly.

Sure, Amazon offers instantaneous access to its titles via Kindle. But who cares? When was the last time someone suffered an ill effect of not having a book delivered to them within seconds of purchase? Our local library cooperates with numerous regional libraries to find books that are not in its collection.

See also

Why is the U.S. obsessed with home ownership?

If you’ve lived in the U.S. for any length of time, you realize that we have a national obsession with home ownership. Yet I’m beginning to wonder about this bit of American orthodoxy. I’ve owned 4 homes and none of them seemed like much of an investment to me. The last home that we sold was an enormous loss. We are now in a transition, anticipating our new move; so we are house-free (and debt-free!) So it’s an ideal time to unpack the complexities of home ownership.

Selected rates of homeownership worldwide

Rates of home ownership worldwide are not uniform; and these rates are not associated with most measures of individual and collective financial success. For example, the highest rate of home ownership is found in Romania, a country not known for its economic productivity. And the lowest rate of home ownership is among the Swiss, a people known for the financial-savvy.[1] In fact, the Swiss save almost 17% of their disposable income compared to about 5% in the United States. If we construct a relationship between per capita GDP and the rate of home ownership for the countries listed in the chart above, the linear correlation coefficient is 0.3112. In other words, there isn’t a relationship between home ownership and economic productivity.

In the U.S., the Federal bias is toward home ownership is both longstanding and questionable. Presumably, the Federal government has in interest in promoting asset accumulation among its citizens. But as Edward Glaeser has pointed out[2] one wonders why homes, among all the other forms of assets should be favored in this way. Hypothetically, the Fed could provide individuals with similar magnitude tax deduction for the purchase of stock. Since one of the most prominent ways that the Federal government subsidizes home ownership is through its mortgage interest deduction, the question of whether the mortgage interest deduction actually aids in asset accumulation is legitimate. Among the problems with the hypothetical connection between the mortgage interest deduction and wealth accumulation are:

  • The mortgage interest deduction disproportionately benefits wealth Americans. Analyses have shown that the relationship between household income and the tax savings from the mortgage interest deduction is non-linear.
  • The mortgage interest deduction encourages people to buy larger houses In an effort to take a larger deduction, people take out larger mortgages to pay for larger houses. There are important environmental and other reasons to discourage this trend.

Aside from the theoretical side, there are real economic findings that suggest home ownership may be an inefficient investment. From 1890 to 2005, when adjusted for inflation, home prices rose 103%, much lower than the rate of rise of the stock market. Since 1900, the U.S. stock market returned approximately 10% per year - about an order of magnitude more than home ownership. Yale economics professor Robert Shiller estimates that the ROI for U.S. home ownership is betweem 0 - 1%. As others have noted, 1% maintenance costs would mean an ROI of under 1%, perhaps even negative. Many other factors can lower this value further - including real estate transaction costs, property taxes, and homeowners association dues.

I’ve come to regard some of Americans’ love affair with home ownership as an anachronism. In the generation before mine, no one lived in HOA’s. People tended to work at the same job for their entire adult lives. And they tended to change houses much less often. All of these factors have changed in the ensuing generations. Yet the informal analyses that prospective buyers do are partly based on assumptions that derive from the “old days.”

In Canada, the analysis is simpler. Apart from buying leverage, there is no advantage to taking out a mortgage because there is no mortgage interest deduction.

Our housing plan

Our plan is based on the following considerations:

  • We will live below our means. I grew up in a family of 4 in an 1100 square foot home. We did fine. Massive swaths of granite, Cambria, and designer fixtures are for suckers. BMW’s, Mercedes, Land Rovers, and other “clown cars” are for suckers.[3] Lawns onto which people pour toxic chemicals and on which people waste millions of gallons of fresh water are for show. We are committed to leaving below our means.

  • We will decouple housing from employment. Houses are massive anchors. We encountered that when we were on the verge of building a massive house. Fortunately we recovered from our delusion. Here’s the deal. Obligations reduce the range of choices open to the obligor; and houses are enormous obligations. By living below our means, we will reduce the burden of our obligations and become independent enough to think about work on its own merit rather than according to the degree to which it allows to live in a certain house.

  • We will eliminate or minimize our mortgage. We are saving the overwhelming majority of our household income with a goal of paying cash for our next house. If a desirable house that fits our well-defined functional needs comes along before enough cash has accumulated, we will take out a mortgage for no more than $150,000 - one that we can easily pay off in 5 years or so.

  • We will be patient, slow, and deliberate. We’ve made bad real estate decisions. Our last house was massively over-priced. We failed to read the imminent bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. We failed to consider how nettlesome and expensive HOA’s are.[4] After selling our last house and living in a rental home, I’ve begun to realize just how easy it is to make more rational decisions by staying out of the market until everything is just right.

See also


  1. The story of homeownership in Switzerland is complex. The Swiss don’t actually prefer to rent. A 1996 survey revealed that 83% of Swiss would prefer to own their homes rather than rent. source. It turns out that Swiss tax policy makes home ownership very difficult because of imputed rent. Swiss home owners are taxed on an imputed income as if they had rented their home to another individual. Fortunately, such a scheme was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1934. Helvering, Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Independent Life Insurance Co.

  2. Glaeser, Edward L. 2011. Rethinking the Federal Bias Toward Homeownership. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 13(2): 5-37. Link

  3. In the interest of accurate disclosure, we were once suckers according to this standard. We’ve recovered; and the prognosis is good.

  4. Our last home was part of a HOA. The rules were irregularly enforced and there were simply not enough homes to support the ongoing maintenance costs. The cost of maintaining (and eventually replacing) the private paved road was a “ticking time bomb.”

3 months without a smartphone

Seeing the world without a filter
I wrote about my decision to give up my iPhone and how it felt one week later. Now I’ve had over three months without a smartphone.

First, I don’t regret the decision to give it up. I own the phone and have no contract. Most smartphones are purchased on contract so that you can properly compensate the carrier from whom you purchased the phone. Because we are planning to move out of the country sometime next year, I did not want to be forced to pay an early termination fee. Furthermore, I want to be a free-agent. If the carrier works for me, I’ll pay the monthly service fee. Otherwise I’m free to seek out another carrier.

The phone still won’t reliably connect to the Bluetooth hands-free system in my Prius V. If I want to use the phone hand-free, I have to power cycle it. Every time. It’s a huge nuisance.

The lack of a GPS is an occasional issue; but I have one in my car and when I’m traveling, I’m usually with someone who has a smartphone. I have no shame about leeching off their purchases!

Similarly, sometimes I just want to take a quick photo; but the camera on the dumbphone is grainy and doesn’t integrate with anything else that I use. No matter, someone can take the picture and email it to me.

Most importantly, I feel no compulsion to check email or any social media sites. When I have down-time, waiting in line at the store, I’m happy to watch and think.

Mostly, I feel more in-control. And the extra $60/month is not too bad, either.

The Art of Just Enough

!Just enough

In the popular sci-fi movie series “The Matrix”, a handful of humans discover that the perception of reality has been artificially engineered by computer software. By taking the red pill[1] a person can be released from the deception, thereby seeing things as they truly are. About material “stuff”, I’ve had the same sort of epiphany.

Three years ago, we decided we needed to build a house. We weren’t pleased with our previous neighborhood; and we happened on a piece of land that seemed to fit our needs. We began working with a builder to design a house. Despite our intent to build a smaller house, the design ended up being considerably larger than the house we were already in. Everything was to be custom-designed and fabricated. All of the fixtures were selected. We had spent hundreds of hours thinking about the designs, going to meetings, reading books, looking at photographs. It was an enormous investment of time and a significant investment of money.

Eventually, we had an epiphany. I couldn’t sleep and felt restless. We had been living with a constant sense of anxiety about the money, about the pace of the planning, and about the future house becoming an anchor. We stayed awake talking about it until nearly 1 AM. The next morning we called off the project.

Since then, we’ve sold our house and the land. We moved into a rental house that is a little crowded but is adequate for our needs. We’ve sold, given away, or discarded hundreds of unneeded items. The process of shedding all of this is like taking the “red pill”. It is hard to look at the ridiculous sums of money that people spend on their houses without feeling that we’ve all been trapped in a “Matrix” of misperceptions. We’ve been jacked-in to the mental games played by advertisers and the real-estate industry. Both operate by promoting the idea that you can be happier with more material goods. Your life isn’t going to be any better because you have Corian, or quartz, or granite, or whatever countertops. You won’t feel more at home because of your soaring ceilings. The phenomenon of hedonic adaptation[2] will ensure that you’ll need a stronger “dose” of material stuff when the pleasure of your luxury house wanes. And it will wane.

We’ve purposely put ourselves in a position to find the boundaries of what is enough. It’s surprisingly little.


  1. In “The Matrix”, the protagonist was offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Taking the red pill would reveal stark reality. Taking the blue pill would continue the illusion.

  2. The hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation is a mechanism whereby humans tend to return to a given set-point for happiness. Gregg Easterbrook has extended the idea of hedonic adaptation by observing the ways the people believe themselves to be deprived, the so-called “abundance denial”. He describes this well in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003) available at your local library

What is southern pride anyway?

A recent poll surveyed attitudes of whites and African-Americans about their attitudes toward the Confederate battle flag. 61% of whites oppose measures to redesign state flags that feature Confederate emblems while 59% of African-Americans do.

When asked whether the Confederate battle flag symbolises southern pride or racism, 66% of whites believed that the flag was a symbol of southern pride whereas 77% African-Americans saw the flag as a symbol of racism.

As a person born in the southern part of the United States, I have a valid right to question the legitimacy of the Confederate battle flag as a proper symbol of anything good. Why is it even useful to call oneself a “Southerner” as if one’s place of origin has any utility? I’m from Louisiana. So what? Does that mean I love my family more? Less? The same?

Dear Confederate battle flag supporters: You may see the flag as some sort of pride; but it’s misplaced. It’s time to unpack the feeling of pride. What, exactly, are you proud of? Does it mean “I feel comfortable in my location of origin?” OK, so do people born in Reykjavik. Does it mean: “I love my family?” Right, so do the Belgians. Evolution has ensured that family units stick together. And consider for a minute why persons from other states don’t feel the need to fly a flag to proclaim their warm and fuzziness. Why do you need an ambiguous symbol to stand for pride? You want to be proud of something? Fix your public health crisis. Properly fund higher education. Fix your tax systems so you can support state infrastructure. Stop defunding early childhood development programs.

And stop flying that flag. Put in a museum.

Finding things with DEVONthink

I’ve been a DEVONthink user for many years; it’s an amazing piece of software. Currently I’m using DEVONthink Pro Office because I use all of the higher level capabilities. Over the years, my database structure and workflow have gone through many changes. In this post I’ll describe my approach to finding things in DEVONthink.

Databases

At first, I dumped everything into a single database. Over time, however, I realized that finding things was difficult because of the number of false positives when searching. I roughly divide my databases between areas of responsibility. For example, I’m a director at two local music organizations; so I have separate databases for each of those groups. However, most of my material goes into a single database. It’s where all of the items of daily living go - bills, receipts, bookmarks, web clips, etc.

I do have an archive database. Although I don’t systematically move items into the archive, when I find items that I’m sure I won’t wish to see in my searches, I move them across to the archive.

Tags

Tags are among the most powerful feature of DEVONthink Pro Office. In fact, because of the way tags are implemented in DTPO, I have begun to dump most of my folder hierarchy. There are two main ways of storing items in DTPO: groups and tags. The problem with groups is that they allow items to exist only in a single area.[1] Sometimes it’s hard to determine in advance where an item should go. For example, our health care provider sends monthly statements. Should they go in a bills folder, a folder for the provider, a medical folder?

DEVONthink Pro Office location tags

Instead of building deep structures of groups, I’ve become disciplined at building a hierarchical tag list and tagging every item systematically. The choice of tags is dictated by how I want to find things.[2] To be an item, I should be able to ask a series of questions about it, the answers to which will narrow the field. Typical question words help me construct a hierarchy. Where becomes a location hierarchy. Now everything gets tagged with a location that lets me find items geographically. What is the largest tree; and it evolves constantly over time as I add new items and try to classify them. Who has two trees, a Vendor tree and a Person tree. I use either depending on which is appropriate to the item. When is answered by the file data metadata. Why becomes a Purpose tree which has branches for entities such as action, reference, etc. The how question is represented by a Source tree with items such as web, note, scan, email, etc.

Question Tag tree Example
Where location location_us_mn_rochester
What topic topic_financial_tax_2015
When none file creation date
Why purpose purpose_reference
Who vendor person topic_vendor_verizon, person_crustyclown
How source source_scan

Workflow

Every item that I collect goes into the global inbox. I make no attempt to tag or categorize the file at the initial collection point. In order to make collection even easier, I hae a folder on the Desktop titled “DT”. Anything that is saved there triggers a Hazel rule that moves the item to the DTPO global inbox. I check the global inbox daily and move items into destination databases according to the content. Most items go into the general purpose database that I call Leviathan.[3]

DEVONthink Pro Office inbox counts Once an item is in the database inbox, the count of items shows up in the sidebar, acting as a trigger for me to get busy tagging items. Right now, almost every item will go into a reference group after tagging. Importantly, nothing gets out of the database inbox without being tagged.

Although everything goes into one large reference group, I still need to organize materials by project. That’s where my project tag tree comes into play. I create project tags for items that relate to a particular project. When materials come into the database that are related to that project, I tag them either directly in the information dialog or by dragging the items onto the tag in question. Finally, I create project smart groups based on the particular tag for that project.

This is my system for using DEVONthink Pro Office. In particular, it’s how I find things. HTH.


  1. That’s not completely true. You can duplicate (copy) and replicate (create aliases of) items between groups.

  2. Hierarchical tags are a killer feature in DTPO because when you search against a tag, the entire hierarchy below it, if any, will also be taken into account. For more about hierarchical tags, see this post on the excellent Organizing Creativity blog blog.

  3. Leviathan (לִוְיָתָן) is a sea monster mentioned in the Tanakh. It has come to mean any large creature. My general purpose database fits that description pretty well.

A week without a smartphone

A week after ditching my iPhone, I’m happy to report that it’s survivable. Preferable, in fact. However there are a few issues to which I will have to adapt.

The so-so

Calendar

Some sort of calendar is essential. While the iPhone calendar is very difficult to use[1], if you stop carrying around an iPhone then you’ll have to come up with some way of knowing when your appointments are.

Contacts

While my contacts transferred accurately to my dumb phone, using the contact list on the new phone is not easy. I still have no idea how to use it effectively. Other subtle issues cropped up. On the iPhone contact list, I use the full phone number with the +1 prefix. But the dumb phone requires the absence of the prefix in the contact in order to show the name of the person calling or texting.

Photographs

I can’t, or won’t, take gratuitous photographs with the low resolution camera in the dumb phone because I have no real place for them to go. So I have had to ask people to take photos for me and send them via email. It’s not a problem; after all, how many cameras does the world need?

GPS

My car has a GPS, albeit a poor one. When I travel, I almost always do so with my wife who still carries an iPhone. So I haven’t really lost any capability in navigation.

The good

Distraction

I don’t feel nearly as distracted as when I carried an iPhone. I don’t feel compelled to answer any question that pops up in my mind by surfing the mobile web and I feel no compulsion to check my email. This is remarkably freeing; and I feel much more present.

Texting

After years of using the iPhone keyboard and its autocorrection features I find texting on the physical slide-out keyboard of the dumb phone difficult. The result is that I don’t text as much. I’d much rather talk to someone because it’s physically easier to do. And it’s way our species evolved to do.

In all, my life is not in shambles. I don’t feel left out of anything that I need to be a part of. I feel more relaxed. I don’t feel any compulsion to “check things”[2] or otherwise occupy my “downtime.”


  1. To be fair, the iPhone calendar is accurate and does the best that it can do with the available screen size. Certain tasks like scheduling items on the calendar if you know a specific date and time are easy. However much of the time that I am using a calendar, I’m searching for an available date and time where context matters. This is where paper calendars excel. I can see a large number of days at once.

  2. Although we often describe heavy smartphone use as a sort of addiction, the organizers of The Disconnect project describe it as more of a compulsion. They challenged 15 year olds at a private school in London to give up their smartphones for a week. The students found the task difficult but not impossible suggesting that the checking behavior that leads of excessive use is a compulsion rather than an addiction. The Guardian has more on the project.

No service

Right now the status bar on my iPhone 5 reads “No service”. This time it’s for real; and it’s permanent.

I was an early adopter. Now, I’m an early dropper. Or whatever the opposite of “adopter” is. But I’m weary of iPhones, iPads and all manner of things that claim to make my life better. Because they don’t.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my growing disinterest in iThings.[1] What began as a desire to avoid being distracted and constantly tethered to the phone has given way to a deeper mistrust of technologies that follow us around. It has taken me a while to come to a fuller recognition of what irritates me about these devices. Certainly their invasiveness, distractibility, and expense remain problematic. But what concerns me more is that iPhones - and by “iPhones” I mean any manner of smartphone - have a pernicious and viral quality about them. Not only do they make it easier and more addictive to check out of the real world, but their ubiquity and “social” hooks make them efficient at spreading cultural expectations about the nature of work and availability to one another. In other words, when everyone has a smartphone, then smartphones become a vector for the warped idea that work is a 24/7 proposition. It becomes nearly impossible to opt-out. No other man-made tool has been so efficient at generating and maintaining a meme like this, one that guarantees its own survival.

Not only do smartphones spread expectations about availability and always-on work, they also disseminate ideas about human imperfection and the desirability of eliminating it. No longer is there an excuse for being lost. Everyone has a GPS in their pocket. No longer is there an excuse for a missed appointment or a forgotten phone number. Never mind that whole regions of the brain are likely falling into disuse atrophy.

But our imperfections are not necessarily “bugs” in the system; perhaps they are “features” (to borrow from programming parlance.) What if the chance of forgetting is what drives us to remember? What if getting lost gives us the confidence to take chances? Whether a bug or feature, demanding perfection of ourselves or others runs counter to Buddha-nature. Accepting that which is, without a desire to make it otherwise, is where happiness is found.


  1. alanduncan.me “Goodbye iPhone”. In February, 2014 I first wrote about my intent to ditch the iPhone. But I discovered that I had several more months of indentured servitude before I could cancel my contract without incurring an early cancelation fee.