Steely Dan and the Perceived Randomness of the iPod Shuffle

By Deane Barker on October 13, 2006

Steven Levy on the secrets of the iPod shuffle: This is a fascinating except from Steven Levy’s upcoming book on whether or not the “shuffle” feature on his iPod was actually random. He suspected it wasn’t, and he actually confronted Steve Jobs on it.

My first iPod loved Steely Dan. So do I. But not as much as my iPod did. By 2003, among the 3,000 or so songs in my iTunes library, I had about 50 Steely Dan tracks. Yet every time I shuffled my music collection “randomly” to mix the tunes, it seemed that the Dan was weirdly over-represented.

Only two or three songs after Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, I’d hear Kid Charlemagne. Then, 20 minutes later, there would be Pretzel Logic. Where was the logic in this? I didn’t keep track of every song that played every time I shuffled my tunes, but after a while I would keep a sharp ear out for what I came to call the LTBSD (Length of Time Before Steely Dan) Factor. The LTBSD Factor was always perplexingly short.

Levy is a great author. His book Crypto is one of my all time favorite geek books.

Thanks Chris.

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  1. Interesting. While I don’t have an iPod, I do have CD changers in the van and the home stereo, and my kids & I always battle over the shuffle thing. They like turning it to shuffle, while I prefer listening to a CD straight through. I explain to them that many artists order the tracks on a CD (or LP) to tell a story, or for one song to complement the preceding one. They don’t see that point at all. So we just have button wars.

    Also, with the random thing, I’ve wondered if there really is such a thing on computerized devices. Example: My in-laws have two of the handheld electronic Yahtzee games; on one of them you’re much more likely to get 5’s than anything else, 6’s on the other. Why is that, if it’s run by a true random number generator?

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