Order In the Plex Now

The Shuffle Effect

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

I’d like to hear from people about what they think about the shuffled chapters in The Perfect Thing. (In case you’re reading this late in the game, there are four diffferent versions of the book, each one with a different “shuffle” of the stand-alone chapters.) Some reviewers shrug it off, some don’t think much of it, and some think it was clever. (One response I haven’t gotten yet is an outraged attack on my violating the sanctity of The Book. Just hope that won’t happen in the Sunday Times review.)

I can share one funny story. Someone involved with people who helped in the development of the iPod told me that a guy on his team was tickled by one passage and told everyone to find it on page 167 (I’m making up the page number; I forget which one it was.). His friends came back to him and said they couldn’t find the anecdote there, he must be making it up.

Fortunately, each shuffle of the book has its own (accurate) index.


  • Algorithm and Blues

    I thoroughly enjoyed your coverage of the iPod’s seemingly willful behavior when instructed to randomly shuffle the cuts. Your account, contained in the chapter titled Shuffle (which in my version arrived in the penultimate position, right before Coda), covered such mystic phenomena as the iPod’s apparent embracing or avoidance of certain artists and it’s uncanny creation of seemingly sentient segues that juxtapose songs related in a manner that only a music ninja could appreciate

    (Boomer example: “Cherish” shows up immediately after “Daydream.” How did my iPod know that both The Association and the Lovin’ Spoonful both had one of the Yester brothers as members?).

    There exists yet another bit of iPod voodoo — or perhaps it should be called Intelligent Design — that falls under this rubric. It’s called the Geoplay and I have personally experienced it many times.

    I spend a good deal of time on the road, alone in my car. Thanks to my iPod, these long dreary road trips that used to be a chore, are now something I look forward to. Five hours with just me and my ‘Pod. Groovy.

    I guess turning drudgery into fun fulfills one of the primary promises of modern technology. But almost from the outset, I began to notice a weird thing happening. My iPod seemed to know where in the USA I was. With it set to randomly shuffle my entire 5000 song library, the little bugger would often pull out just the right cut depending on my locale.

    I would cross the state line into Alabama to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Arriving at the city limits of Springfield, Illinois I was greeted with “Broken Arrow” by the Buffalo Springfield (I’ve never had a chance to try it, but I imagine that if I “shuffled off to Buffalo” with Shuffle on, I’d get the same reception). Crossing the Ohio River northbound, I got “Back Home Again In Indiana,” and John Denver welcomed me and my Mountain Mama to West Virginia and encouraged me to opt for “Country Roads” instead of the highway. When I crossed the Mississippi into Missouri while bopping to Dave Van Ronk’s rendition of “The St. Louis Tickle,” I knew that there was something spooky going on.

    When I got home — and against the advice of my wife — I phoned an Apple exec friend who was my frequent source of deep background information about the company.
    “Tom, you’ll probably think I’m crazy,” I offered, “but I need to know. Is there any chance that my iPod is being effected by the onboard GPS system in my car?”
    “You’re crazy, alright,” he replied. “Not a chance. But that’s not a bad idea, you know.”

    He was right. Upon careful analysis, I determined that there were many, many more instances of the iPod playing a song totally unrelated to my location than the opposite case. As you pointed out, it’s just that when it does happen coincidentally, it’s so bizarre that you tend to remember it. I concluded, as you did, that the apparently intelligent linkages were all cases of serendipity and the connections existed exclusively in my own mind.

    But the idea of a product that would actually carry out openly the very act that I suspected my iPod of performing secretly, holds considerable appeal. Please tell me what you think of this new product/service idea:

    iPod users who also own automobile GPS systems are invited to set up an account at TripTracks.com (or TripTrax.com, if you want to be cute). The user’s entire Library is list is submitted, analyzed and returned to the user with new tags added to many of the selections. Each tag contains three values: Latitude, Longitude, and Radius. Once the TripTrax.com hardware interface is in place and the software installed on the user’s computer and iPod, a new menu item is available under the iPod’s Settings menu: RoadTrip On. By selecting this option, the TripTrax algorithm is activated and the iPod becomes aware of its location at all times.
    Once the user reaches a destination that falls with the Radius distance from the coordinates associated with a given song, that song automatically occupies the next position on the play list. If more than one song fills the bill, they are all placed into the queue, but not clumped together. Example:

    I arrive to the south side of Chicago with my iPod set to Shuffle and RoadTrip turned on. The song “Bad Leroy Brown” has been tagged with the coordinates for downtown Chicago with a radius of 25 miles. After the current song is finished, here comes Jim Croce wailing: “On the south side of Chicago…” The next few tunes are totally random, and then I’m assailed with the soundtrack from Chicago, the Musical. A bit later it’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (I don’t really have this song on my iPod. This is an imaginary example, okay?). You get the idea.

    The radius value is important because some landmarks are bigger than others. I will need to get within one-half mile of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland before Chuck Berry starts crooning “Hail, hail, Rock ‘n Roll. Deliver me from the days of old.”

    For a modest fee, TripTrax.com will keep my ever-expanding musical library road-ready and street legal. Every time I make any additions, an automatic sync is initiated to the TripTrax database and the tag values are provided.
    The folks at TripTrax.com central headquarters work around the clock associating the lyrics, music and artists of the world’s music supply with specific geographic locales. Guidelines are established so that the associations are not too obscure or tenuous (Do we really need to hear “The Theme from the Spy Who Shagged Me” when driving into Austin, Texas?)

    Details, such as what to do when a person’s iPod is turned off with Geoplay tunes already in the queue and then not turned back on until the person has traveled somewhere else, will need to be worked out by brighter minds than mine, I’m afraid.

    Your reactions, plus any words of feedback, to this prototype concept are graciously invited. If it catches on, who knows? We all might be shuffling off to Buffalo before too long.

    Thanks for writing such a terrific and stimulating book.

    Peter Weisz

  • My book is currently in the mail from Amazon, so I cannot give any feedback in regards to the shuffled chapters just yet.

    I do think, at the very least for the paperback, there should be a choice of a white or black iPod on the cover. Or just make the paperback be in black.

    That would be insanely great.

  • a flat file does not flourish from such randomizing– instead, it forces each chapter to be a stand-alone magazine article, with some repetitiveness. Had the book been printed with a notch more computing power, the repetitions of quotes and taglines could have been eliminated; the chapter ordering instead might have merged whether to put the full quote, or simply reference it . But that would mean there really would have to 9 distinct books (the first of 10 chapters is always first), rather than 9 different orderings of the same chapters. When I try to quote from the book, I see an even more pernicious effect of shuffling: references can’t specify the place to find a quote, since each chapter can be anywhere in the book, so each chapter should show its own scrolling pagination as a chapter “time code.”

  • Paul, the idea of actually using computing power to smooth over the (very few, really) repititions is interesting, but seems to sort of mitigate the novelty, if not the point, of shuffling. There was something very clean about using the ping pong balls to determine order, and then simply putting the chapters in, as is. To tamper wih the language within the chapters once the shuffle is determined seems somehow cheating. At least to me.

  • Mr. Levy, I very much enjoyed the “shuffle” approach to your new book. As a matter of fact, I am “adopting” (sorry, university jargon!) it for my first-year writing class in the Spring. I want to use the book first for its content (hopefully a hook for my Honors first-year kids–born in 1988)! and second, to discuss how your analysis of the “Shuffle” mode as a kind of cultural marker leads you to your structural choice of shuffled chapters. It’s perfect!

    When I am not teaching composition, I am an English teacher educator (training future English teachers), and your approach fits in beautifully with some contemporary theory and practice in literacy studies. You may be interested to make some further connections with the “multiliteracies” crowd coming out of Australia, New Zealand, and other places.

    I know the students (first year Honors students at my regional university) will be wowed by your book. Do you think we might impose on you for an author’s Q & A via email or chat at some point?

  • Markus

    It was quite useful reading, found some interesting details about this topic. Thanks.

  • Markus

    It was quite useful reading, found some interesting details about this topic. Thanks.

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