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When iPod is the DJ, watch out

The "shuffle" command is supposed to give a truly random tour through a vast music collection. But some owners have doubts.

While Bob Angus was presiding over a summer dinner party at his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, his Apple iPod decided to reveal its softer side.

Angus, a second-year graduate student at Columbia Business School, had selected the Shuffle Songs mode on his iPod, which was connected by an adapter cable to his stereo receiver. By doing this, he relinquished control of his 1,300-song music library--and, as he would soon find out, of his party.

The Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City" blared from his speakers. It was followed by the melodic piano solo at the beginning of Elton John's "Your Song." Angus' 10 guests burst into laughter.

"Everyone was rocking out," Angus said. "Then Elton comes on and kills it--it was like strike No. 1 against my manhood."

Such are the perils of using Shuffle, a genre-defying option that has transformed the way people listen to their music in a digital age. The problem is, now that people are rigging up their iPods to stereos at home and in their cars, they may have to think twice about what they have casually added to their music library.

Shuffle commands have been around since the dawn of the CD player. But the sheer quantity of music on an MP3 player like the iPod--and in its desktop application, iTunes --has enabled the function to take on an entirely new sense of scale and scope. It also heightens the risk that a long-forgotten favorite song will pop up, for better or for worse, in mixed company.

Device's preferences?
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.

Revere Greist, a doctoral student and amateur bicycle racer in Los Angeles, has concluded that his iPod's Shuffle command favors the rapper 50 Cent--and perhaps more important, that it knows exactly the right time to play 50 Cent's biggest hit, "In Da Club." He finds the dramatic beat, coupled with the lyrics "Go Shorty, it's your birthday," inspirational.

Greist rides his bike 15 hours a week, often more than three hours at a time. To get him through the tedium of this workout, he created a 40-song mix called "What It Takes," a name derived from a quotation on a documentary film about Lance Armstrong's training for the 2000 Tour de France. (After Armstrong defies his team manager's orders and races up a snowy mountain, his team manager says into the camera, "Now, that's what it takes to win the Tour de France.")

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The iPod "knows somehow when I am reaching the end of my reserves, when my motivation is flagging," Greist insisted. "It hits me up with 'In Da Club,' and then all of a sudden I am in da club."

For Angus, though, Shuffle can be a workout killer. He said that while working out at the gym, his portable music player invariably drifts toward the Billboard Top 40.

"It really likes Ruben Studdard," the winner of "American Idol's" second season, Angus said. This, despite the fact that he only has one song of Studdard's--the soulful ballad "Sorry 2004"--stored on his 20GB player. "There's nothing worse than when you are having an intense workout and Ruben comes on," he said, "but it seems to always happen to me."

Lucy Shaw, a social worker in New York, has stopped using Shuffle altogether. "It was totally not reading my moods," she said. It would play upbeat music when she was feeling low--and dark, somber selections when she was feeling upbeat. Furthermore, she said, her device had a penchant for picking songs containing four minutes of dead air followed by a bonus track - like Brian Ferry's "More Than This" (the song to which Bill Murray sings karaoke in "Lost in Translation," a bonus track on the film's soundtrack album).

Conspiracy theories
These people are not the only ones who think that iPods have minds of their own. IPod enthusiasts are throwing all manner of Shuffle conspiracy theories around on Internet message boards, ranging from the somewhat plausible to the absurd.

At the MacSlash discussion site, one posting said: "I'm pretty sure iTunes is not sorting my songs randomly. It seems to learn. I'd say it's using some Bayesian logic and/or simple neural networks to vary probabilities of songs to be selected and adjust parameters of selection by the user's history of song skipping."

When confronted with such elaborate theories, Stan Ng, Apple Computer's director of iPod product marketing, laughed. "The funny thing about it is that it really is random," he said. "When you turn on Shuffle Songs, it creates a randomized list of all the music on your iPod without repeating a song."

That is to say, if you listened on Shuffle to all 1,000 songs stored on an iPod Mini, you would theoretically never hear the same song twice, much the way you would never get two queens of hearts if you pulled cards from a single deck one by one. (Conversely, if you select Random on the iTunes Smart Playlist function, you might hear the same song twice in a row, though it is unlikely.)

The popularity of the listening mode led Apple's product design team to add Shuffle to the main menu on the fourth-generation iPod, which was introduced on July 19. Now, instead of having to scroll down into Settings to turn Shuffle on or off, users have it at their fingertips.

Ng said that the technology behind the Shuffle function has remained the same since the first-generation iPod. He declined to reveal the algorithm used to generate randomness on Shuffle, but said the only reason that an iPod might seem to know a listener's preferences is that the listener, after all, chose the music in the first place.

Into '80s music
"I have friends who say, 'My iPod is, like, totally into '80s music,'" Ng said. "And I will say to them, 'Well, how much '80s music do you have on your iPod?'" The answer, he said, is usually an amount sufficient to ensure a steady stream of Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran.

This logical explanation doesn't always jibe with users' experiences. Dan Cedarholm, a Web designer in Salem, Mass., insists that his iPod has a predilection for the indie punk band Fugazi. Even though he only has two of the band's albums stored on his "vintage" 5GB device, the band seems to dominate his iPod to a degree wildly disproportionate to the amount of space it occupies on his player's memory, he said.

"It is truly bizarre," said Cedarholm, who no longer likes Fugazi. "Before, it was this hidden gem, and when I heard them I would be like, 'Oh yeah. Fugazi. Cool.'"

Now he hits the Fast Forward button.

Cedarholm has contemplated removing all Fugazi songs from his iPod, but he said he fears that "the baton will get passed" to some other band, like his beloved Pixies, "and God help me if I wind up hating them too."

According to Ng, there is no way that an iPod can be a "fan" of a particular artist or band. Rather, he asserted, the anthropomorphizing of the iPod is "just another example of how much people love them."

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