Homemade Christmas Gift Becomes High-Tech Nightmare

In the December 10 edition of Connected Home EXPRESS (http://www.connectedhomemag.com/visual/articles/index.cfm?articleid=41141), I discuss some fun holiday gift ideas that the latest technology trends enable. Now, I discuss the dark side of technology gift giving or, if you will, what happens when technology goes bad. I'm not talking about a computer triple-charging your credit card or a software gift destroying a friend's PC, although we're all familiar with those scenarios. No, I want to talk about trying to do the right thing--but with painful results.

Like many of you, I have several friends who aren't exactly tech-savvy; we might think of such people as "normal." One such friend, Chris, only recently bought his first computer, and he did so somewhat grudgingly, mostly because of pressure from friends and family who had discovered the wonders of the Internet. I had preached the digital-media dream to Chris for years, promising him that he could easily record his CD collection to his hard disk, then make his own customized mix CDs. I talked up the advantages of a portable audio device such as Apple Computer's iPod. With digital photos, I argued, he could do away with the boxes of 4" x 6" photos clogging his closet. And with a broadband connection, he could easily book trips, find information, write email and instant messages, play games, and even pump his digital-media content to a large TV and stereo. I think Chris finally understood the desirability of all this functionality, but like I said, he's normal. Computers just aren't a priority for him.

Chris and I grew up together and share a love of music, so I knew he owned a huge collection of CDs. But he's also a busy guy, and his computer has sat in the corner of his den, largely unused. (He did sign up for DSL service, which I suspect was a big step.) I started pestering him to migrate his CD collection onto the PC, and I even offered to help. Finally, months later, and with the holidays approaching, I offered Chris a deal: I'd find him an external hard disk and copy the CDs to the disk for him. My work would be his Christmas present.

Over 3 years ago, I copied my own CD collection to the PC. It was a painful process that I performed over a few months, and it cost me a Plextor CD-ROM drive, which died under the stress. I accomplished that music migration a long time ago, however, so I figured the process (and the hardware) had improved since then. I've been purchasing CDs in the intervening 3 years, but I hadn't performed such a massive CD copying operation since my initial foray into digital music. Like many digital-media enthusiasts, I'm fairly particular about my collection: I want all the metadata (e.g., artist, song, album information) to be accurate, so I can easily make custom play lists and mix CDs, for example. I like the way Windows XP organizes digital music with automatic album art on the folders. And although I prefer Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, much of my collection is in MP3 format because I use an iPod, which can't use WMA files. I discussed these concerns with Chris, and we settled on 160Kbps MP3 files because he wants an iPod for the gym.

Chris dropped off a massive duffle bag of CDs, and I prepared myself for what I thought would be a simple but time-consuming task. How hard could it be? I sit in front of a computer all day anyway, so I figured I could insert CD after CD into my CD-ROM drive and use Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series--and the third-party MP3 encoder I bought 2 years ago--to encode the music as MP3 files. I pulled the first stack of CDs out of the bag and got to work. Chris has eclectic tastes in music. We had similar tastes (mainstream rock) long ago, but Chris gradually segued into dance and electronica, rap and hip-hop, grunge, and, most recently, a type of noise rock that defies description. He has the occasional country CDs, some promotional CDs from local radio stations, and a bizarre collection of classic rock. (Nazareth? Seriously.) Chris has more than 250 CDs in all--more than I had expected--covering more than 20 years. Most of his stuff was pretty unfamiliar to me, and as I pulled CDs from the bag, I got a kick out of seeing what sort of weird disc would turn up next--Snoop Dogg, The Cover Girls, Headswim, Faith Hill, Sevendust. His tastes were all over the place.

Now we come to the problem. When you rip, or copy, CDs in this manner, the application you're using contacts a service such as All Music Guide (AMG) or Gracenote's CDDB service to automatically fill in the album, artist, and track information for each song. This information is almost always wrong. CDDB is a disaster because the service lets individuals populate the database. AMG, which allegedly has a process for ensuring that its data is valid, has grown to be just as useless. The most common problems I've encountered are as follows:
- incorrect genres--For at least 70 percent of CDs, the services list the genre as Rock, regardless of the actual content. For soundtracks, the genre is listed as Soundtrack. I've seen a Motown hits compilation, "MTV Party To Go" CDs, and a country CD listed as Rock. For compilations that contain multiple types of music, the services list the tracks as Rock or Soundtrack, depending on the CD.
- poorly handled compilations--The services don't handle compilation CDs (e.g., "80's Greatest Rock Hits," many soundtracks) very well because the CDs include multiple artists. Typically, the services use the Various Artists or Soundtrack label as the overall artist name, then individually list the correct artist names at the track level. In XP, you would need a folder called Various Artists under My Music that would be full of compilation CDs, which is fine. But sometimes, the CD-level artist name is Various or some other string. And soundtrack titles can have nonstandard text suffixes, such as Original Soundtrack or Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. They're all different.
- spurious characters--On at least 40 percent of the CDs I copied for Chris, certain song titles included odd extra characters, such as "\[*\]", typically because those songs were CD bonus tracks. Who cares? More important, what could these characters possibly signify to the user or application consuming the content?
- misspellings and incorrect names--What's the difference between "MTV Party to Go Volume One" and "MTV Party to Go, Vol. 1"? The former is the name of the CD, and the latter is the name as listed in AMG. Why doesn't AMG provide a feedback button so that I can alert the company about such problems?
- incorrect dates--I like to make custom play lists that rely on correct dates. If a group's greatest-hits CD comes out in 1999 but the group originally recorded a particular song in 1978, the date of that song on the greatest-hits CD should be 1978. I'm not fixing errors of this kind for Chris because doing so is simply too complicated, but I've devoted quite a bit of time and research to fixing these dates in my own collection.

Because of these problems, I find myself babysitting each recording by checking the artist names, CD titles, song titles, genres, and other information against the original source. I'm not familiar with a lot of Chris's music, so I often have to sample a few tracks to determine what kind of music it is. This Christmas gift is taking a very long time and has somewhat disrupted my week: I've been chasing down album art (which occasionally doesn't appear, for mysterious reasons), correct album titles, and other information, all while trying to get work done. A week into this project and with Christmas just days away, I don't begrudge Chris the time. We've been friends since 7th grade, and I'm excited to see him slowly entering the digital age. But I'm astonished that this process isn't easier, and I have to wonder how a normal (nontechie) person might handle these challenges--assuming he or she would know about the ability to edit this information so that it's consistent and correct. Aren't computers supposed to make this sort of thing simpler?

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