0.0 Context setting
Saturday, August 7 in Portland, Oregon.
It has been, for the last two days, not unreasonably hot here, but apparently it’s going to breach 100f again next week. Like many other things at the moment, I also hate the weather but it’s clear that the weather also hates, in its non-conscious, non-living way, us.
1.0 Things that caught my attention
One thing today. One long, long thing.
For want of a screenless MP3 player
Last Christmas, in an effort to be more involved parents, we got our eldest child an MP3 player. We did this because he loves listening to audiobooks and podcasts and our position on screentime for our kids (now 8 and 4 years old) is to be intentional both in amount (hardly any during the week, weekends are the days when they get some) and type. By type, I mean the kind of interaction. A TV show? A film? A YouTube show? A videogame? What videogame? What’s the videogame about? Something on their own, or something with us?
Being intentional about screentime is, what I’m led to believe, what Responsible Parents do: take the time and learn what they need in order to make informed choices. I mean, this is how the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the industry group that rates videogames, says:
ESRB ratings make it easy for parents to be informed about the video games their kids play, but there’s more parents can do to stay involved and up to date. Learn how to set parental controls, start a conversation using our discussion guide, download the ESRB mobile app, and more.
Look, I’ll just say it: this is a lot of work! I do not think my parents did this work, both in depth and time spent, when I was young and growing up in the 80s/90s! But I’ll come back to that later on.
So: eldest loves listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and at the time, the way for him to listen to audiobooks and podcasts was on an iPad (via Plex; we have them stored on a central server), or something like an Amazon Echo (don’t start). The Echo wasn’t great — there are things that are age-appropriate to him that aren’t age-appropriate for a 4-year-old. But the thing about an iPad is that there’s all this stuff that you can do on it and while there are times when we’re totally OK with that stuff being things you can fiddle with, sometimes, we’d prefer that he can just listen, and not have a screen to interact with.
So! I realized we could get an MP3 player. MP3 players still exist, they didn’t suddenly disappear when Apple stopped making the iPod as a dedicated music player in 2019 (the iPod Touch doesn’t count). See, the thing about an MP3 player is that it does just one thing (I guess more than one if you count music, audiobooks, podcasts, a radio and a stopwatch and so on) and you can’t really do anything else with it unless, I don’t know, you root it and figure out how to run Doom on it.
The MP3 player works great. Sure, the interface is shonky. The kid gets to roam around with kid headphones on and for a while strutted around with the Sandisk Sport Go or whatever clipped to his shorts/trousers/person thinking he was the coolest thing in the entire world and honestly, I am not here to disagree.
But lately, he’s been into podcasts more, and there’s a habit of him coming and waking us up at 6am in the morning asking us to unlock the iPad so he can listen to a podcast. Which for a while we were totally fine with until I realized that we weren’t (again, a changing attitude based in part on learning what he’s been doing with a richly-interactive screen-based device). So, I say: “Look. You can listen to podcasts at this unnatural time in the morning and the new way of doing that is on your MP3 player because of reasons to do with screens,” which sure, it was somewhat upsetting to him but ultimately he came around.
I, however, am not happy at all, and resorted to an ALL CAPS TIRADE on Twitter, of which this is the much more presentable version.
Here’s the problem: podcasts aren’t actually that complicated. There’s two real parts to them - a file you get over the web that’s an RSS feed, and the actual podcast episodes themselves, which are generally MP3 audio files (Some/more of them are m4a audio files now). The RSS file/feed links to the MP3 audio files. That’s it. That’s how complicated it is.
The beauty of this is that the RSS feed is pretty open and all they do is have regular links to MP3 files that are just sitting on a webserver. In theory, all you do is read the RSS feed and then go download the files that are linked from it. There are some nice touches, where things like the title and description and some album art are included in the MP3 file (and/or in the description of the episode in the RSS feed), but really, that’s about it.
This is how podcasting worked back in 2004, when Ben Hammersley invented the word to describe what was at times being called “online radio” or “audio blogging” (remember Odeo?).
It’s also how podcasting works now, in a swept-under-the-floor-hide-the-cables kind of sense: Apple Podcasts for example still relies on RSS feeds and still publishes RSS feeds. If you want to submit your podcast to Apple’s directory, you’ve got to make sure your podcast’s feed validates, which just means that it, uh, speaks RSS properly and follows Apple’s spec for how to describe and link to MP3 files.
So you have to understand that getting MP3 files, which is what my kid’s MP3 player, uh, plays, should be easy. All I need to do is get the MP3 files for each podcast or episode.
First port of call is to use, uh Apple’s Podcast app on my Mac. Which doesn’t let you get at the MP3 files. Sure, it lets you subscribe to a podcast, it will let you “download” the episodes, it will even let you “save” the episodes, but if I want to just get at the files — which I’m sure we’ll all agree that they all exist and are not figments of our imagination! — I… cannot. (Well, I can. On the local filesystem, they’re a few levels deep in your ~/Library/ in a container and each episode’s filename has been turned into a guid.) So this is not ideal.
This is before I get into other services that let you consume podcasts, like Spotify and Anchor dot FM (sorry, that’s Anchor dot FM by Spotify) that kind of let you close to the RSS feed that will let you get MP3 files, but… not quite.
In the end, what I did was to go grab some Python scripts, use those to directly parse the RSS feeds and download the podcast files, use ffmpeg to convert the ones that needed converting, then copy them over to the kid’s MP3 player.
It shouldn’t have been this hard. I shouldn’t have to pay $2.99 or whatever for a Mac App Store app to download MP3 files when Podcasts, the macOS built-in app used to let you drag-and-drop MP3 files out and do what you wanted, but now, inexplicably doesn’t, as of whichever macOS 11.point update.
I know it shouldn’t be this hard because, I belabored above and countless times in my ranty thread, ALL THIS IS IS AN RSS FEED AND LINKS TO AN MP3 FILE. Obfuscation here, is deliberate and designed. For some reason, in the 15 years between 2006 and 2021, it suddenly became vogue and completely normal to hide those MP3 files to the point that I’m yelling about whether I actually have to go out and write an RSS feed parser which a) resulted in Internet Friend Les Orchard kindly pointing out his very handy book FROM 2005 about parsing RSS, and b) very accurately also pointing out that “one of the last people I knew who [wrote an RSS feed parser] wrote 3000 unit tests and then quit the internet altogether” and let’s just say that my understanding of parsing RSS is a bit like my understanding of browsers parsing HTML: being liberal in what you accept is all fine in theory until you’re the writing the code that’s supposed to be liberal and where humans are involved in writing the code you’re parsing.
But I digress: sometime, in the last 15 years, we went from a sort of open-platform, where Apple mainly functioned as a sort of directory that let you find all these other podcast RSS feeds but also happened to have a client built in to their music players and computers, into one where… one where platforms ruined everything?
Oh, I don’t know why I put a question mark at the end, of course “platforms” ruined everything. But I don’t quite mean platforms, I mean money, I mean VC investment, I mean cheap money, I mean the whole goddamn thing. Mainly money, I suppose, but it feels like such a cop-out these days to just throw up your hands and say but late-stage capitalism, but even so, late-stage capitalism.
Look, here’s the pros:
- lots of podcasts exist now
- people are getting paid for making podcasts
- more people who otherwise might not make podcasts are making podcasts?
- you can listen to podcasts in lots of spaces?
- I don’t know, some people are getting rich and investing the proceeds in tickets of suspicious value and provenance that just point to pictures of things, which is some sort of good thing for the economy because the invisible hand also has an invisible brain?
And here’s the cons:
- I hate everything
- More people are making podcasts now and yes, Sturgeon’s Law, but that’s still an absolute increase in all the crap along with all the stuff that isn’t crap and this is important for Reasons.
- (The Reasons are that now you’ve got so much more crap, you need “discovery mechanisms” to make sure you avoid all the crap and you get to the good stuff and we all know how well those recommendation algorithms are working out, hope you didn’t want your kid to be radicalized into a fascist nazi)
- Everything gets trapped inside lots of little / medium / big walled gardens because everyone’s strategy is the same
- “Content” becomes an “exclusive” which makes “criminals” out of the people who “want to use content they’ve paid for”
In other words, Cory Doctorow was right about everything all along, he was right about DRM, he was right about platform lock-in, he was right about general purpose computing and I’m very sorry I ever forsook him for the short-term gain of ease-of-use and convenience, I take it all back now, I really do.
Because, see, services and platforms.
What happens is you get something like Spotify, also about 15 years old (huh), founded in 2006 which made a bunch of money for streaming subscription music, out-competed competitors like Pandora by, from what I can tell, just “having more money than them”, and then was threatened by Apple’s music subscription streaming service because Apple “had more money than them”, and then raised a bunch of money (“to compete with the other money”, and whose strategy then included “use the money to buy podcasts but make it so most of those podcasts can only be available in Spotify” and this is just but one of the reasons why I hate everything.
Spotify, see, is how top-rated kids podcast Story Pirates becomes a Spotify Exclusive, when Spotify bought Gimlet Media in 2019 for (checks notes) two hundred and thirty million dollars! (Don’t worry, everything’s fine at Gimlet).
Now you might be thinking at this point: Dan, this is a lot of complaining. You do sure complain a lot. Perhaps all that energy should go into, say, making what you want to see in the world, hmm? Perhaps you should go and make some sort of MP3-downloading Podcast App and perhaps pair it with some sort of Screenless Audio Player For The Children Of Handwringing Middle-Class Liberals, hmm?
And I would say: ahaha no you’re not catching me out that easily.
Because lots of these exist! And they’re all not doing very well!
- There’s ellodee, a company that makes “healthy tech for kids and families”. Their Ellodee Sound Companion is “a fun way to independently explore millions of songs, podcasts and audiobooks.” Ellodee appears to be a closed platform: you can’t add your own content to it.
- There’s Timio, an “interactive and educational audio player”. Timio also does not have a screen! It’s an “autonomous tool for learning and play, without the worry of screens” and uses “magnetic discs to unlock a library of content”. I know what you’re thinking: can you add your own MP3s to Timio? No. You can’t. “Timio doesn’t use the MP3 file format. It uses a proprietary encoding”
- There’s the Yoto Player, which promises to deliver “a world of imagination” and honestly, it looks great. You can add MP3s to it, but the way you do that is through the Yoto Player’s interaction method, which is physical! There are cards you use to tell the device what audio to play and presumably they’re NFC/RFID-based so, you know, you need to buy a bunch of cards. I mean, that’s not the worst, right?
Every single one of these comes with a subscription service. Some of them, like the Yoto Player don’t require a subscription service but I have to admit if I were Yoto, the temptation would be there because Everyone Loves Subscription Businesses, just like how people love subscription lingerie businesses.
I wouldn’t do this because… well, it just feels like you’d lose, or you’d be shut down, or any other number of things, and part of that is still being weary and tired from my old startup experience. I wouldn’t do it because the deck is stacked against you so, so, so much and part of the reason is platforms and money, again.
Sure, you could spend a bunch of time and money coming up with a good hardware design for a screenless MP3 player. The difficult part isn’t so much the hardware and more the industrial and interaction design — the guts are pretty similar these days. I take that back, the other difficult part is actually going through the whole OEM process, I imagine that’s still hellish. Fine, you do that, you raised enough money from Kickstarter or wherever and you also figured out how you’re going to inscribe 12,000 backers’ names on to the device because you made a dumb promise at the beginning when you launched.
Great, you’ve got hardware. Now you need music, books, podcasts and so on. Sorry, I should’ve said “content”.
Guess what: you’re screwed. I mean, you’re not totally screwed, but here’s the reality of the situation. There is a war going on out there and I’m angry because it’s a very Tech War[^TechWar]. You are screwed because software is supposed to be eating the world, and when software is eating the world apparently that means there is license to make sure there is One Winner and a ruthless fight for dominance in some sort of zero-sum game, and if there can’t be One Winner, then there’s an uneasy detente.
You’re screwed because people like money and people who make things like money and that’s totally fine because we don’t live in a post-scarcity society where people’s needs are met, because you need money (and not just need to like money) to be able to survive.
And so someone comes along to the people who make that great podcast your kid loves that you used to be able to listen to and they say hey, how do you like trucks and the people say “well, we’re kind of ambivalent on trucks, there’s the whole climate crisis thing and-“ and then the person interrupts and says “oh sorry we didn’t mean the vehicle we meant a literal truckload of money” and before you know it the production company that’s partnered with the actual people who made the podcast is rich and the people who made the podcast might be able to afford one or two months of health insurance coverage.
And then the MP3s of that podcast disappear because the acquisition of content was Strategic and if Exclusive Content was not Acquired in the next Financial Year then it might have Material Effects to Forecast Revenue but don’t worry, these aren’t Forward Looking Statements.
So you, you maker of hardware company, you need to make sure that the people who buy your little screenless MP3 player for bleeding-heart liberal parents who are mollycoddling their kids because in my day we let kids cover themselves in phosphor and shoot electrons at each other because that’s how much screentime we gave them, actually have something to listen to on it, which means you need to have money to license the content (because you wouldn’t just steal an audiobook), which means licensing music, which means licensing audiobooks, which means licensing… podcasts.
But you didn’t used to have to license podcasts. Podcasts were weird and interesting because they were from 2006-era internet where people just “made things” and “put them on the internet for free” and you would make money by “advertising” which meant having pre/post-roll/intra-episode ads and why everyone (no, not everyone) suddenly knew what a Mailchimp and a Casper Mattress was and why they were made by a Mr. Warby Parker.
But advertising kind of made money for the people who made good podcasts and then it kind of made money for people who got together and banded into, I don’t know, podcast Studios or Networks and then before you know it All The Money Arrived And The Tech Companies At The Same Time and we’re in 2021, where getting the goddamn fucking MP3 of a podcast onto my kid’s Sandisk bog-standard do-nothing MP3 is a goddamn journey.
But look, why was I trying to do this in the first place? Oh right. My wife and I were trying to do the right thing and be involved parents, paying attention and making intentional choices about the media that our children interact with.
Have you tried doing that lately? I mean, have you? You don’t have to, I’m not going to guilt you or anything, I don’t know anyone’s circumstances other than the guilt-industrial-content-complex of parenting advice that exists in the West. You might not even have kids. You might think that exposing them to any kind of media is actually a good sort of immunization strategy, or that the way you get kids to avoid harmful media is the same way that parent tried to stop you smoking, by making you smoke the entire pack at once, just like you’d stop someone from being radicalized by forcing them to watch 24 hours of non-stop questionable YouTube content that inexplicably hasn’t been moderated yet.
The past wasn’t perfect, not even close, but it certainly was different. A very high level abstract description of the past for growing up middle class in the West in the 80s or 90s might be something like this: you got to watch a bunch of TV, you listened to a bunch of music, you read a bunch of book/comics/encyclopedias/confidential do-not-distribute internal service manuals and documentation (yeah, I know who you are), you played a bunch of videogames.
I am willing to bet that parents spent a cursory amount of time that was in proportion to whatever mass media might have been saying at the time, i.e. “wait, you play video games and there’s a game called Mortal Kombat?” or “you watch TV and there’s movies about killing people?” or “you read books and there’s books about-“ and so on.
But! Oh boy is it different now. Some examples:
For TV, at least, your general experience in the 80s/90s might have been broadcast TV in the UK or I don’t know, whatever zillion channels of cable you had in the US. In the UK at least, a kid’s viewing choices were limited to 4, maybe 5 broadcast channels and highly regulated ads, especially during kids programming. In the US it was so bad that Mr. Rogers had to be literally bred in an underground secret government program, some sort of concentrated parental figure to be beamed into the ether, and then shortly followed by the denizens of some “Sesame Street”.
You can’t just let a kid watch YouTube in the way you could let a kid watch broadcast TV. I mean, you could. But you were reasonably sure they wouldn’t end up radicalized because the government would have a word with whomever was making the Radicalizing Cartoon (wait, this is exactly what parental pressure groups did). We don’t even use YouTube kids because although there’s good stuff there, have you seen it?! It’s not good, Bob!
There’s this thing where if you want to know if something is spam then you need to read it and if you don’t want to read it, you get a computer to read it. For sufficiently complicated things, you end up needing to have a human read it to correct the computer. Being an informed parent who makes intentional, considered media choices these days can be a goddamn time sink and it’s not even clear if some of those choices even matter that much because so much of the threat or harm can’t even be quantified!
Part of the problem is the explosion of content, the need to trust and delegate control and the lack of fine-grained control. Yes, Spotify and Apple Music and so-on have parental controls that restrict content using industry association ratings. But that’s pretty much the only control you have: is everything U, or PG or PG-13 OK? That’s it. That’s your choice. You don’t get to block anything specifically, you don’t get to allow anything specifically. That’s your choice. I mean, even goddamn Twitter has a more fine-grained approach to moderating the content that you see.
So there’s one of the rubs: on the one hand, unprecedented access to a breadth of human culture hitherto impossible or even undreamt of, and at the same time, if you want that, then you don’t have the equivalent of “yeah, but not this one” and not bringing that CD or book into your house. It is all or nothing, such is the nature of software, which is in the control and domain of humans.
Same with videogames: either everything or nothing by age range. No “actually, I want to play this game with my kid and I want them to play it” or “well, not this particular game”. Everything or nothing. So what are you supposed to do?
And then there’s the whole Minecraft ecosystem: the phone/tablet/console edition of the game has an add-on ecosystem and on iOS at least, the way you can get those add-ons is via other apps in the App Store. Would you be surprised if I told you that the majority of those apps have ads? Some of them will even let you get rid of the ads. For a great price of $9.99 A WEEK. Others won’t let you get rid of the ads! And that dates back to EA’s acquisition of Plants vs Zombies, which is a MILLION INTERNET YEARS OLD NOW and used to have an ad-free version but not anymore.
At least my parents had a vague idea of the ads I might be exposed to in the 80s or 90s but oh no, not now. Not in the slightest.
Yes, I know about Pi-Hole. If you are telling me about Pi-Hole you are inadvertently proving my point, which is that responsibility or intentionally parenting these days involves a frankly unreasonable and untenable amount of both content moderation both passive and interactive and at this point a quite enraging amount of goddamn systems administration. Look, yes, I love that my kids can play online with their friends. It’s fantastic. It’s been a complete life-saver during These Times. Also, before now, I used to not have to try too hard to not let random people into our house and now, to do the equivalent of Not Letting Random People Into Our House there is an actual control panel and we all know how well UI text is written these days and that’s even, graciously, allowing for the system to work consistently across platforms in the first place! So no, I don’t want to have to install a fucking Pi-Hole to deal with shitty ads to my kids because now I have YET ANOTHER DEVICE WITH AN IP ADDRESS IN MY HOUSE TO DEAL WITH THE FACT THAT OTHER DEVICES IN MY HOUSE HAVE IP ADDRESSES. Congratulations, the saying goes. Now I have n+1 problems.
I could go on. I am simultaneously angry and defeated and I have absolutely no idea what to do, and all of this, all of this goddamn thing is because of money and computers and software and the internet and it’s not like any of those things was bad on its own nor even in appropriate combinations and yet each of those things in combination have still resulted in some of the best things in my life.
But. I. Am. Tired.
This was too hard. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t effortless. It was something I wanted to do and was in my power to do and now I don’t have that power and that has made me sad, angry, defeated and all of those feelings.
That’s the end of today’s newsletter episode.
I love getting notes and replies, even if they’re just “hi!” or even “hi” without the exclamation mark and do my best to reply.
How are you doing?