Rudy: An iTunes love story

The following story is true. The names have not been changed. The guilty are still guilty. And named. The heroes are also named. As they should be.

This story begins in D.C. on a road trip with my wife about one week before arriving in South Bend Indiana for a conference I was attending on the beautiful campus of the University of Notre Dame. The plan was for us to spend one of our evenings in our hotel room eating popcorn and watching the classic Notre Dame football movie, Rudy. Since we were staying at the Morris Inn, just 200 yards west of the historic Notre Dame football stadium, and since my wife had never seen the movie, this seemed a fitting part of our stay beneath the golden dome.

On our flight from New York to Chicago, my wife asked me if we in fact owned the movie Rudy, and if so, whether I had thought to bring it. My response was that, No, we did not own the movie, and that I had, in fact, thought to bring it, but as I said previously, we don’t own it. However, no problemo, says I, because it should be blindingly obvious to the casual observer that all one should have to do to obtain a copy of Rudy is to step foot in the Notre Dame Bookstore. This was my plan.

On the second day of our stay at Notre Dame, I found a gap in the schedule and beelined to the Notre Dame Bookstore where I found multiple copies of Rudy on Blu-ray, but nothing on DVD. Another search by my wife turned up nothing. A third, more thorough search by me turned up a single straggling copy of Rudy on DVD, buried beneath some other Fighting Irish propaganda. For $26! You’ve got to be kidding me. Ha, bookstore prices. Of course. Not a problem. There’s a Walmart in this town, right?

That night we ate at a nice restaurant conveniently located near a Walmart in South Bend, and after dinner we made our way to the DVD section of the world’s most popular store. No luck. Ask the clerk. Ah, they only carry Rudy during the football season. Are you serious? This is South Bend, Indiana, for crying out loud! You’re telling me there isn’t a perpetual demand for Rudy at an arbitrary Walmart in South Bend Indiana on any arbitrary day in the off-season?! Alas, this was, inexplicably, the case.

Not to fear. I noticed a video rental joint not more than a few blocks from here. Surely they will have what we need. A quick stop, one question to the clerk, and the much sought after DVD was in my hands for the sum of 54 cents. We were in business.

Back to the hotel, pop some popcorn (in the break room of the kitchen staff downstairs at the end of the hall — don’t ask), and settle in to watch the DVD on my MacBook. Approximately 10 minutes into the movie, as Rudy races with great emotion through his fellow high school seniors to hit the pad carried by his coach, the movie freezes. We stare at the grimacing Rudy, wondering if he’s going to knock the stuffing out of his coach after he unfreezes. The DVD player on my Mac gives up the ghost and dies. We restart everything, but we’ve lost about 10 minutes of the movie and the bulk of the plot setup. Unacceptable. We instead decide to watch Invictus (inspirational rugby movie, almost the same thing), and commit to plunking down the cash at the Bookstore the following evening.

One day later I scan the DVD shelf in the Notre Dame Bookstore, but find that the random copy of Rudy that I had rustled up a day before has apparently been snagged at what now seems like a bargain basement price of $26. We roll back to the hotel, somewhat dejected, unwilling to romp around town further trying to find a local establishment with enough Fighting Irish school spirit to stock a functional copy of the best Notre Dame football movie of all time.

This is when the voice of Steve Jobs comes into my mind, and I realize that there may yet be a way. I jump on iTunes, and quickly locate the heretofore elusive movie. For just $9.99 (which now feels like an absolute bargain) I secure a downloadable QuickTime movie, consuming only 1.29 GB of hard disk space in the process. No physical disc to secure in some random building in a random town. No plastic to scratch and corrupt. Just a file. Just bytes flowing through the tubes to my laptop and the movie playing for me in my hotel room.

In about the time it took my wife to secure popped popcorn (downstairs, down the hall, etc.), we were watching the elusive movie on my Mac. The beautiful thing is that it may as well have been on my iPad, sitting with the squirrels under the trees near Touchdown Jesus. But it happened to be in the hotel room, on my Mac.

As always, the brilliance of Apple is not, strictly speaking, the engineering (although that’s clearly necessary). It’s figuring out what I want to do, plus when, where and how I want to do it, and then just making it ridiculously easy for me to do that. Most companies ignore that little part because it doesn’t feel like academic or engineering rigor. It’s not “the hard stuff.” But at the end of the day, it’s really just about the only thing that actually matters.

Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!

quietube: YouTube without the distractions

Like a lot of things I encounter surfing “the InterWebs” these days, I have a serious love/hate relationship with YouTube. The positive value is fantastic. The negative skank factor is a huge turn-off, and frankly… almost impossible to turn off. Even when you visit a video with redeeming value, there’s inevitably some goofball from Peoria using the comments section to demonstrate via effusive expletive his lack of expressive verbal power. So dumb. So unnecessary. And let’s not forget the video response spams enticing the viewer to explore skanky content, and the “related” videos on the side, in case there wasn’t enough skank elsewhere on the page.

Enter quietube (www.quietube.com). The concept (and the execution) is brain-dead simple. Go to the page. Here’s what you’ll see.

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Drag the little box that says “quietube” to the bookmark toolbar in your browser. The next time you are looking for something on YouTube, as soon as you find it, just click the “quietube” button in your bookmark toolbar, and you’ll be taken to the same video on the quietube site, where you’ll see… (drumroll please) … just the video. No comments. No video responses. No skank. You can then copy the URL of this quietube version of the video and email that link to friends and family, knowing that you are providing them with some cool and/or valuable entertainment without thrusting them into a skanky Internet back alley.

You need to understand that this isn’t a YouTube replacement. You can’t go to quietube and surf YouTube from there. But you can at least watch without undesirable garbage, and send links to YouTube videos with greater safety.

As an example, I present to you, one of my favorite viral videos of all time, “Charlie Bit My Finger,” courtesy of quietube.

For the Twitter community and others concerned with URL length, you can click the link entitled “TinyURL for this page” and be taken to TinyURL which will deliver you an even shorter link to the same video. So for the TinyURL afficionados, you can check out the example video here.

Internet slogan for the decade with no name: “Less is more.”

Memo to the industry: There’s a market for non-skanky content. :)

iPhone screen capture

I haven’t blogged much about my iPhone. (OK, lately I haven’t blogged much about anything…) But the latest firmware release (2.0) to my iPhone provides me an amazingly slick and valuable tool — screen capture of the iPhone’s display.

First of all, doing it is amazingly simple. You hold down the home button for a second and then press the off/lock button (on the top right of the iPhone). The picture of the display is saved in the photos. From there you can do whatever you can already do with pictures on the iPhone, such as email them.

So why would I use this? I can imagine a number of situations. An obvious one is simply any situation in which you’d like to show someone how cool your iPhone looks when it does whatever. Very useful for bloggers, educators and obnoxious Apple aficionados of every ilk.

Another involves the really helpful utilities on the iPhone, like the built-in Google maps feature. Imagine you are on the road while your friend is trying to figure out how to get to your lunch meeting location (in this case Nicolitalia Pizzeria in Provo, Utah — possibly the best authentic Italian pizza place in the valley). Imagine further that your friend is not cool enough to have an iPhone with the built-in Google maps feature. You go to Google maps on your iPhone, type in the search string “Nicolitalia pizzeria, provo, utah,” find a map of the place. You find that the built-in Google maps pin places Nick’s in the middle of University Parkway. No problem, you drop a second pin yourself and drag it right into the parking lot in front of the destination. You now snap a picture, and email it to him from your phone. Your friend is momentarily enlightened. Lunch goes off without a hitch. He will be more consistently enlightened when he springs for his own iPhone and when he becomes a regular at Nick’s.

The attached photo is my live demo of how this actually works. Yes, I did in fact email this to myself from my iPhone. Yes, that is in fact Nicolitalia Pizzeria. Yes, they do in fact have the best authentic Italian thin crust pizza in the valley. And now you have a map to get there…

If you see me there, say “Hi.” :)

Nicolitalia Pizzeria

Man flies 193 miles in lawn chair

Man flies 193 miles in lawn chair

Kent Couch is my hero.

Last weekend, Kent Couch settled down in his lawn chair with some snacks — and a parachute. Attached to his lawn chair were 105 large helium balloons.

Destination: Idaho.

With instruments to measure his altitude and speed, a global positioning system device in his pocket, and about four plastic bags holding five gallons of water each to act as ballast — he could turn a spigot, release water and rise — Couch headed into the Oregon sky.

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I’m confident my wife would never let me try this stunt. And frankly I’d be really embarrassed if I died in the attempt. But this is the sort of thing that I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. And Couch had the guts to try it. Twice.

Couch is the latest American to emulate Larry Walters — who in 1982 rose three miles above Los Angeles in a lawn chair lifted by balloons. Walters had surprised an airline pilot, who radioed the control tower that he had just passed a guy in a lawn chair.

I suppose there will be other copycats, probably not including me (alas!). It’ll all be fun and games until some guy goes up with a case of beer for ballast and then falls out of his chair unconscious and unable to pull the ripcord on his chute while he plummets to his death somewhere over Nebraska.

Then there will be laws passed against elevating one’s self in a lawn chair without a license, or crossing state laws while reposing on outdoor furniture.

But until then, my hat is off to Kent Couch, my design hero of the day, for courage in the line of reclining, and for elevating his game above and beyond the call of common sense.

Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

The first time I tried on a pair of Bose Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, I was on a cross-country flight with one of my graduate students, David Vawdrey. He had just acquired a pair for himself, and was so excited by the experience that he insisted on giving me a live demo in-flight. Turns out that 35,000 feet at the rear of a wide-body jet is the place to fully appreciate these things!

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These headphones are noise canceling, not sound canceling, so you can still hear announcements, and most of the time carry on conversation, but the most annoying aspects of normal cabin noise more or less vanish. This is a case of genius on two levels. First of all, someone had to think of the fact that business travelers would kill for really nice, high quality noise canceling headphones. Second, someone had to actually pull off the technology of noise canceling headphones and package them in a great form factor. Mission accomplished.

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Now a bit of personal bias. I have significant hearing loss in both ears, and I tend to hear most sounds somewhat poorly, especially midrange sounds where conversations take place. But a weird side effect of my hearing condition is that there are some sound frequencies that I actually hear more acutely than most people. Naturally these are high, shrill pitches, just like… um… the ones that pound you incessantly on airplanes!

Prior to this point in my life I had done a ton of business travel, and my experience with airplanes was that I had two options: 1) Use earplugs. Several problems. If you jam them in far enough to really block the sound, you arrive at your destination with a sore ear canal. When they’re in, you can’t hear the flight attendant when it’s time to select your meal, and you can’t carry on normal conversations with your travel companions. Of course, that can be a blessing or a curse, but that’s another topic. Finally you’re stuck if you want to watch the in-flight movie. 2) Do nothing and arrive at your destination with a throbbing headache. I had played it both ways, and neither was fully satisfying. But I generally erred toward the earplugs as the lesser of two evils.

That brings us to the cross-country flight in which David put the headphones on me, asked me if I was ready, and then threw the switch. Absolutely amazing. Seemed like 80-90% or more of the ambient noise (especially the most irritating frequencies) just vanished. Regular sound was reduced, but still audible. Plus the headphones were incredibly comfortable. From that moment my only question was how I would beg, borrow or steal a pair for myself. By my next trip, I had managed to acquire my own pair, and air travel has never been the same since.

Now, the second brilliant aspect: they double as super high quality music headphones. So take yourself back to the last time you tried to watch a movie on an airplane with the sound system on the plane (especially the now-antiquated air-driven headphones). In order to get past the background noise, you wind up cranking the volume, pounding your ear drums, and contributing to the arrival headache, not to mention contributing to permanent hearing loss. The Bose headphones simultaneously cut the background noise and provide an amazingly clear sound, so you can listen to the movie, the music or whatever, at normal volume. Just amazing.

Last touch of class: inside the case is a business card slot containing a set of courtesy cards. On the back, the card reads, “Our customers tell us they are often asked about their Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. For your convenience, we are providing this handy courtesy card for you to pass along.” Contact information follows. That’s confidence! And yes, I’ve given them out on airplanes…

Retail Price: $299.00. Worth every cent.