January 11, 2005

Random violence

With the cool looking new iPod shuffle, Apple takes the next logical step after the success of the Mini: charge people even more for even less. Yes, $99 sounds like a good deal in absolute terms, but a quick calculation shows that if a 20GB iPod costs $299, the 512MB iPod shuffle should in fact cost only about $7.50.

Of course, capacity isn't the only thing that people pay for (in an iPod or anything else; there's a reason most people buy small, brightly colored packages of food even though you can get a burlap sack full in the bulk aisle for much less per pound). I have no problem with consumers making a conscious decision to pay a lot of money for the smaller size and greater convenience of the Shuffle. And it's pretty slick of Apple to notice that most iPod users keep their machines on shuffle all the time anyway. Maybe I'm the fool for paying for all those playlist and other sorting features that I rarely use.

Which brings me to my real gripe: is there something wrong with the iPod's randomizing algorithm? I've got 10,000 songs on mine (a 1st gen 20GB in case any tech support types are reading this) but it's now pretty clear that some songs pop up over and over again while others never get played at all. [Update: Oh, right. If only there were some massive electronic database on which a person could search for such information.]

I've tried to compensate for this by always starting on a different song (selected by a truly random spin of the wheel) but I can't really tell if it helps.

Has anyone else noticed this? I'm tempted to solve the problem by upgrading to a 40 or 60 model, on the theory that with more songs, repeats will be that much less likely. But maybe the Shuffle is the answer. If I get a different 120 songs everytime I sync, I'll probably get a wider variety overall. (except of course this only makes sense if you sync every day or so. I wouldn't want to be stuck away from the computer for two weeks with lots of driving to do with only 120 songs).

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I assume this was facetious, but I'm pretty sure you can set your larger iPod to sync up only with selected playlists. You could even have it sync up only with a randomized Smart Playlist, though that might defeat the purpose of avoiding Apple's randomization algorithm.

Umm. I also have to inform you that you're about 6 months behind a NYTimes trend article on iPod shuffling -- "There is an unintended consequence of the allure of Shuffle: it is causing iPod users to question whether their devices 'prefer' certain types of music." That's Rachel Dodes, Aug 26th, "Tunes, a Hard Drive And (Just Maybe) a Brain". I won't bother linking 'cause I had to get it from Nexis.

>I assume this was facetious,

Yeah. I just want an excuse to by a cute l'il Shuffle.

>Umm. I also have to inform you that you're about 6 months behind a NYTimes trend article on iPod shuffling

As I realized when I did the Google search that you'll find in the update brackets.

I've noticed my gen2 15gb ipod definitely favors certain tracks over others. Actually, it seems to be just a few tracks over nearly all of the others. That said, I rarely use the shuffle feature--too much of a control freak.

I have a 40GB and I agree that shuffle doesn't seem "random" enough. I understand that the Beatles, who are disproportionately represented will get the bulk of plays, but when you get two in a row or three out of five, that makes me wonder. Especially since even among the huge Beatles selection, it seems to repeat certain tracks a lot.

The problem is that iPod has no memory of previous sessions (or doesn't care about them.) I have some songs that have been played dozens of times, while many have never been played at all. The iTunes software keeps track of this stuff, but doesn't seem to factor it into the shuffle algorithm.

It also seems that once it plays a certain artist, it has trouble getting away from them, zeroing in on a few during each session. For example, I have one Squirrel Nut Zippers CD (12 songs out of 5000+; my 40GB is not even close to full; I don't know if that matters or not) but recently got two of the songs in less than half an hour after never hearing from them before (or since.)

These are the questions of our age...

"Yes, $99 sounds like a good deal in absolute terms, but a quick calculation shows that if a 20GB iPod costs $299, the 512MB iPod shuffle should in fact cost only about $7.50."

yeah, if you could buy a 512Mb portion of a 20Gb hard drive. but it don't work that way, and flash memory is expensive, man.


If forced to speculate (c'mon force me, I dare ya), I'd say the downfall of the iPod shuffle algorithm is battery charge conservation. Since hard drive spin-up is the biggest drain on charge, it's unlikely that their algorithm would go blithely skipping through drive sectors to find random tracks. Semi-contiguous chunks of data would give the semi-appearance of semi-randomness without chewing through the charge.

gt -- that makes sense (or at least sounds like it does to someone like me who really knows nothing about such things). If true, there should be a randomness vs. conservation preference you could set. On most days, I don't need 12 hours of battery life.

gt-- i agree that you might be on to something, but two other considerations.

1) If I understand my iPod manually correctly, it loads songs in big chunks of about 20-25 minutes worth of music at a time. So if you leave it on, the drive only spins for a few seconds every 20 min. or so. That's another one of their tricks for conserving battery.

2) When listening to song in iTunes (ie., directly off my computer hard drive) the shuffle variation is not much better.

I am also not smart enough to know if any of this means anything.

I also had the impression the the shuffling is not random and did a litle test. You might wanna check it: http://www.salathe.com/blog/music/applebeatles.html

Interesting experiment. Of course if Shuffle skews itself toward frequently played songs, it becomes self reinforcing since showing up in the shuffle increases play count, which increases the chance of it showing up in the shuffle, and so on.

The only problem with your conclusion is that it doesn't make sense for Apple to favor the Beatles. In fact, because of the lawsuit it seems they would want to suppress them. After all, you can't even buy Beatles tracks from the iTunes music store. Unless it's part of some convoluted plot to gain exclusive rights to their catalog? (I don't see how that would work, but...?)

I wonder if there's anyway for someone to "hack" the algorithm to find out how it truly works.

Yeah, the shuffle algorithm is pretty skewed, bot on the players and on iTunes itself. The problem is, from a mathematical perspective, that randomness doesn't equal even distribution. Something can truly be random but not look random.

I don't think it would be hard for Apple to add 10 lines of code so that their software retains a list of the last n songs played. When it's time for a new song, the program checks the randomly picked song against the queue. If it's in there, it needs to pick again. If not, it's all good.

With a little more motivation, perhaps they could make it so you can decide if it checks for same artist/genre as well. Plus, you get to choose how long the queue is.

This would be easy as sin to code. Like 10 minutes for a pro coder.

I've also noticed that the shuffle song list for the 20 GB ipod sucks. I tend to get the same 100 or so songs, out of around 1000. That's actually how I found this thread, I googled to see if anyone else was having this problem.

Apple is teh sux, stupid randomizing algorithm

I Know this is old, but my iPod seems to favour Madonna over quite a lot of my artists, maybe since i have about 100+ songs by her in a ~1956 song selection

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