Yet More Jackasses: Neal Mueller and the Business Editors of The Washington Post

I’ve been up to my ears in jackassery lately, but here’s another case that’s just too blatant to let slide. In its October 22 Sunday Business section, The Washington Post ran a series of articles commemorating the fifth anniversary of the original iPod. One, subtitled “iPod Cheers”, was written by 22-year-old self-proclaimed former iPod-hater Scott Sternberg, and his piece can more or less be summarized by its fourth paragraph:

My conversion to iPod is like a proverb: You can’t criticize something for being “too easy.”

Another, subtitled “iPod Jeers”, was from 28-year-old mountaineer Neal Mueller, who complains that on a trip to the summit of Mount Everest, his iPod broke but his Creative MuVo “had no problem cranking out Van Halen when I stood on the summit of Mount Everest”.1

Mueller’s other complaints read more or less like a “best of iPod FUD” compendium:

  • iPods scratch easily, whereas his MuVo “won’t scratch”;
  • his MuVo is lighter;
  • his MuVo takes AAA batteries;
  • iPods are “priced at a considerable premium”

And, of course, this gem about openness:

The MuVo is an open system and can accept music from a variety of sources. By comparison, iPods live in their own little world. They only work with custom cords and other special accessories. They only work with their own music format. Basically, the iPod perpetuates its own exclusive clique. It’s no team player.

Surely, you, as a reader of Daring Fireball, don’t need to be told what nonsense all of this is. For one thing, he’s comparing a hard-drive-based (heavier, more expensive) iPod to a flash-memory-based (lighter, cheaper) MuVo. A 1 GB MuVo costs $66 at; a 1 GB iPod Shuffle costs $80.

And the openness gripe — man, how long are people going to keep trying to make this stick? iPods play more non-DRM-encumbered formats than Creative’s players.

His complaint about batteries is, perhaps, legitimate, given his particular circumstances — being able to replace the MuVo’s batteries is probably pretty handy when you’re somewhere like on an Everest expedition, where AC power jacks aren’t available.

But that merely brings to light the ridiculousness of his complaint about iPods not functioning on Everest. Apple’s tech specs for hard-drive-based iPods offer clear environmental limits:

  • Maximum altitude: 10,000 feet (3,000 m)
  • Operating temperature: 32°–95° F (0°–35° C)

As Dan Moren wrote out on MacUser:

Mt. Everest’s summit averages -2°F (or -19°C) in its warmest month, July; its altitude is around 29,028 feet. Now, Neal, I’m sorry that your iPod didn’t survive the trip to the top, but complaining that it doesn’t work 34 degrees below the low threshold of its operating temperature and almost 20,000 feet above its maximum altitude is like being upset because your car doesn’t work underwater.

“iPods don’t work in extreme high-altitude conditions” isn’t exactly a significant concern for most people. (Denver, by comparison, is a mere 5,000 feet above sea level.)

On its own, though, Mueller’s rant is minor league jackassery. What makes it notable is its venue: the Sunday Washington Post has a circulation hovering around 1 million, and The Post is widely regarded as one of the nation’s finest newspapers.

And what pushes it over the line is that, according to Mueller’s own web site, Creative Labs is a supporter of his expeditions, supplying him with “gear and services”. (Credit again to Dan Moren at MacUser.)

The point here isn’t that someone with ties to Creative shouldn’t be allowed to “jeer” the iPod or extoll the virtues of the MuVu V200 or whatever the name is of the Creative gadget he took to Everest’s summit2 — but that he is obligated to disclose his relationship with the company. Hence the bonus Jackass of the Week award to the Business section editors at The Post — something like this isn’t supposed to slip through at a reputable publication.

Brief Self-Promotional Postscript: Now seems like a good time to mention once again that, unlike iPods, Daring Fireball t-shirts are certified for high-altitude Himalayan expeditions, albeit not as outerwear.

Update, 29 October 2006: As of today, Mueller’s article contains the following disclaimer:

An article in the Oct. 22 Sunday Business section on Creative MP3 players failed to disclose that the writer, Neal Mueller, received a free player from the company to use on his 2005 expedition to Mount Everest. He is not officially sponsored by Creative. He received that player after writing to the company to say that he is a fan of its products.

  1. Let me guess: “Standing on Top of the World”. ↩︎

  2. I was going to write something about Mueller being the “highest”-ever Jackass of the Week, but then I remembered who won this week’s previous award↩︎