6.09.2013

Playing With Play Music All Access

A few weeks ago, Google simultaneously announced and released its new Play Music All Access service on May 15th, the first day of the I/O 2013 developer conference it held in San Francisco. I was already excited about I/O, but the release of All Access caught my interest in particular because I was starting to get tired of Spotify and its limitations (especially the lack of landscape support on Android, which was remedied only very recently). Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of a free trial and reduced pricing (available to early adopters through June 30th), and I started playing around with the service.

It's a bit sad that the first thing I got excited about in my experience with All Access was that Google finally updated the Play Music Android app (better late than never), which had been obnoxiously buggy and difficult to navigate at times. It quickly became clear to me that Google paid meticulous attention to the app's new design, because the app is now a pleasure to use, as compared to the crummy old Honeycomb-styled version (good riddance). The new app is a lot more responsive, doing away with most of the lag that had plagued the old version, and it has a considerably more sensible interface, both on phones and tablets. The new slide-out menu on the left makes it easy to navigate to all the important screens from anywhere in the app, and the familiar three-dot menus enable you to dig deeper into the app as needed in a fairly intuitive manner. I'm not sure what the design of the forthcoming iOS app will be like, but I'm assuming it will be similar, with some minor differences (as with the Android and iOS versions of the Gmail app).

The web interface mirrors that of the app, which is a great thing – UX consistency is something that Google has struggled with in the past, and progress towards a more polished user experience is something to be excited about. Navigation is straightforward, and everything pretty much just works (with the exception of some hiccups on Linux, which are specific to Google Chrome and are in the process of being fixed). Lately, I've actually found myself using the web player instead of my computer's native music player (Windows Media Player on Windows 8 and Clementine on Kubuntu 13.04) because it is that easy to use. Music discovery can still use some work, but I've gotten pretty good mileage out of the Related Artists functionality and, of course, the Radio feature. Still, Radio is definitely not yet on par with Pandora or Last.fm – it's really just an upgrade to and rebranding of the old Instant Mix feature, which was a second-rate competitor to Apple's iTunes Genius that never seemed to work quite right.

One unique aspect of All Access is that it seamlessly integrates with your music collection, to the point that, on Android, it can be difficult to distinguish which albums are physically on your device and which are streaming from the cloud via All Access – the only thing that gives streaming tracks away is the requisite buffering time, which is very short if you have good 4G signal (one of the few good things about being shackled to Verizon's network). As some technology writers have pointed out, Google is currently the only company that gives you the option of uploading your own music, buying individual tracks or albums from the Play Store, or streaming as much (or as little) of its entire music catalog as you want for a flat monthly rate, all under the same roof. The ability to bring your own music to the table is particularly important in light of the fact that Google's streaming music catalog isn't quite as well-developed as Spotify's – the superior streaming selection is pretty much the only Spotify feature I've missed since canceling my Premium subscription and deleting my account).

Overall, I've been very pleased with Google Play Music All Access (quite a mouthful of words and a decidedly unsexy nomenclature that some critics have brought up) so far, and I hope that Google keeps expanding its music catalog (please add some more Luna Sequence) and tweaking the radio algorithms (hint: when I start a song station for Shade Empire, that means I don't want to listen to Shinedown). One last note – while this isn't an issue for me since I live in the United States, All Access currently isn't available in any other countries, as opposed to Spotify and similar streaming services. The fact that workarounds have been discovered mitigates this issue somewhat, but of course such unofficial means are not endorsed by Google and may be killed off at any time. Google plans to expand the service to other countries eventually, but that will take some time, since, as we all know, international music licensing is complicated (and expensive, but Google has deep pockets).

--lbds137

6.08.2013

Tour De Leesburg: An Adventure

Today was the first day of Strava's fi'zi:k Tour Tune-Up Challenge, the completion of which requires participants to ride 30 hours on their bicycle of choice in the span of 16 days. When I joined the challenge, I did some simple math and found that 30 hours split across 16 days comes out to 1:52:30 per day. That's kind of a lot for a relative biking newbie like me – I got my Specialized Hardrock 17" bike from Phoenix Bikes in Arlington back on May 10th, and I've tried to cover at least a modest distance each day since then (with a couple of exceptions, of course). When I went out the door today about an hour after my daily 6.5 mile run, I had planned to ride for roughly 2 hours, in order to stay on track for the riding challenge. Instead, I ended up riding for almost 4 hours, split into two equal-sized pieces. For reference, my longest continuous ride before today was almost 23 miles, which took me about 1.5 hours to complete.

At this point, you may be wondering "OK, he rode a lot today, but where the heck did he go?", which is a perfectly reasonable question. The title of this post provides a pretty solid hint – I rode to Leesburg, VA and back. Why Leesburg? Well, the initial plan was for me to take the W&OD trail to Reston, eat there, and come back, with an estimated transit time of just under 2 hours. Of course, when I actually got there, I assessed how I felt and decided that I could definitely keep going and get a leg up on the riding challenge. I was also curious about what I'd find along the trail west of Reston, so the spirit of exploration also had a hand in convincing me to keep going.

The Market Station wagon
Aside from a few road crossings of varying difficulty (with regard to the amount of automobile traffic), the trail consisted mostly of shrubs, high bushes, houses on either side, open fields, wooded areas, some bridges over large creeks, and lots and lots of power lines (to be expected given the trail's provenance). There were quite a few points of interest along the trail, most of which are listed on the trail's Wikipedia page (I know I'm being lazy, but my excuse is that I'm tired after doing so much riding today). On my way to Leesburg, I passed through a laundry list of localities: Falls Church, Dunn Loring, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Ashburn, and of course Leesburg itself. When I finally reached Leesburg, I checked my phone to see how far I had gone, and I started looking for a place to eat when I saw that I had ridden almost 30 miles.

The chef and his cake
Although I couldn't see any restaurants from the intersection of the W&OD trail and Harrison Street, I pulled up Google Maps on my phone and saw that the center of Leesburg was just a stone's throw away, so I hopped back on my bike and turned right, following Harrison Street until I found a quaint wooden outdoor plaza called Market Station. Happy to find a wooden rack to chain my bike to, I started walking around the deck, keeping an eye out for restaurants as I went along. I passed by an Italian restaurant, whose miniature Italian-chef-holding-a-wedding-cake statue made me chuckle, and felt a rush of excitement when I saw a Tex Mex establishment called Los Tios Grill, deciding on the spot that I would dine there.

The epic Tex Mex platter
Once inside the restaurant, I hastily grabbed a menu and skimmed it, trying to assess the ratio of quantity to price of the various offerings. I ended up making my own combination of a delicious trio: one hard shell beef taco, one beef enchilada, and one chicken enchilada. After a bit of confusion on the waiter's part as to whether I'd be taking out or ordering in, I sat down at a table and hungrily awaited my meal. To the staff's credit, the food came out very quickly – a generous offering of chips and salsa was soon followed by an enormous platter of food. The taco and enchiladas were accompanied by rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes, and a small container of tasty spicy sauce. In a rare moment of foresight, I snapped a photo of the food, knowing that I'd probably want to write about it later, and commenced eating. Like the tornadoes that tore through Oklahoma recently, I swiftly and mercilessly laid waste to the food in front of me, scarfing it down in under 13 minutes (as indicated by the timestamps of the "before" and "after" photos).

The tres leches cake
Unfazed despite the mountain of food I had just consumed, I took the first opportunity to remind the waiter of my dessert order. He nodded and went on his way, and within a few minutes I was greeted by a large square chunk of ambrosial tres leches cake. As soon as I took the first bite, I knew that this cake would not last long, despite its impressive size, and sure enough the plate was empty in less than 4 minutes. Anxious to get home before dark, I asked for the check, leaving a large tip as thanks for the quick service, and rushed back to my bike.

The ride back home seemed quite a bit shorter than I had expected, even with a full stomach, and it turns out that I actually covered the distance at a slightly higher speed. Undoubtedly this was due to the occasional pedal-to-pedal skirmishes I engaged in against other bikers along the way, passing them and sometimes later being passed. One of the most intense "battles" I fought was against a woman on her road bike – she passed me somewhere in Vienna, but I stayed fairly close behind and overtook her on the fairly steep hill leading up to the bridge over I-66. After conquering the hill, I sped down along Virginia Lane and looked back, taking pride in the fact that my opponent was nowhere to be seen. From the Shreve Road intersection onward, the ride became a blur, and I was home before I knew it, well before it got too dark outside.

--lbds137


6.07.2013

The Obligatory Inaugural Post

All good things (or bad things, for that matter) must start somewhere, and my humble personal web log (henceforth referred to as "my blog", "the SOSS", or perhaps "the sauce") is no exception. I suppose the expectation is that this inaugural blog post will shed some light on a few key questions you may already be asking your computer screen, such as "who the heck is this guy?" and "why should I bother reading his unsolicited ramblings?".

I'll defer the answer to the first question to my Google+ profile, because I don't want to bore you to death in my very first post (don't worry, that will probably happen later). The answer to the second question is a moving target, as I figure things out, but a temporary answer is that you might learn something new or at least be somewhat entertained by my second-rate writing (and sporadic self-deprecating attempts at humor).

As you may have read in the description of my blog, you can expect to read "potentially opinionated rants about music, running, biking, technology, and whatever else I feel like writing about" on a semi-regular basis (read: whenever I feel like posting something). The length of my posts will probably vary widely depending on the subj√®t du jour ("subject of the day" for those of you who don't speak French), but you can expect at least a few paragraphs of half-baked discussion and analysis (and copious amounts of parenthetical addenda such as this one). In general, I will try to employ standard American English spelling and grammar, but on occasion I may choose to break convention for effect or just because I feel like it. I will probably take advantage of Blogger's labeling functionality to make it easier for you to find posts about your favorite topics, but of course I have to write a bunch of posts about stuff first. Stay tuned!

--lbds137 (this is how I will sign my posts henceforth)