Adblock the real world

As augmented reality moves from handheld devices like the iPhone to graphical-overlay glasses (soon!), it will be able to — for example — block out real-world display advertising. Sort of the way ads are currently digitally inserted into broadcast of sporting events. (A passing thought from an article on AR in The Atlantic, which yes, I am going to keep linking to every single month, because the Atlantic is the best magazine evar.)


Pandora illustration from NYTimes In the beginning, we were all blown away by Pandora, right? Type in the name of an artist, and it generates an instant radio station based on their music. You rate particular songs up and down and it refines the station. You can store multiple stations of your own, and mix and match them at will. And it works really, really well; you discover music you’d never heard of that you love, and more importantly the music experience is just really good.

So how does it work? I guess shockingly, the hard way. They have people — Pandora employees, no croudsourcing here — sitting around listening to and categorizing songs. So when Pandora says you’ll like something because of “swung rhythm, minor tonality, syncopated guitar, and whispered singing” (or whatever it says), those are tags that someone manually applied to that song. Amazing. This is from a feature on Pandora in NYTimes’ magazine last week. Here are a few particularly interesting bits (and do not miss the completely absurd accompanying “infographics”):

[Tim Westergren, Pandora founder] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”


They moved on to vocals [in Indian classical music, a new genre being added to Pandora], and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.


Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate., for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know.

But there’s a problem that emerges with Pandora, right? It’s anti-variety. If what you want to hear is just plain good music, it hasn’t really got your covered. If what you’re craving specifically is variety, or great new music that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, you’re out of luck. I happen to enjoy completely disparate sounds back to back with each other. And while Pandora allows me to combine my stations into a “quick mix” (in fact of course, that’s how I created the “listen now” button in the sidebar), it’s limited by my imagination and my existing taste, which is exactly what I’m trying to get away from when I turn to internet radio rather the, say, my own iTunes playlists.

Not everyone wants quite the level of variety I do, but to some extent this is a real problem for anyone looking for more then background noise. If you care about music, then you want to have your tastes pushed, you want a music service to favor brand new music, and you most definetly do NOT want to hear Celine Dion (and no, it is not a shocker that her music is in fact completely pleasant and enjoyable in a bland sort of way).

Even the “listen now” link I’ve got is sort of a dead thing. I put it together something like a year ago, and it’s been exactly the same thing since. There’s a mix of genres, and it’s “eclectic” in a sort of a way, but not in a satisfying way, because the formula emerges and then becomes predictable. I could go in and tweak it once in awhile, but I’m never going to surprise myself in the way I want to be surprised, because that takes the real work of discovering stuff. And I can’t help but feel like all those people sitting at Pandora HQ are chasing a dead end. That croudsourced “people who liked X also liked Y” systems are inherently better, but that even that only goes so far.

My two favorite recently-discovered artists are the Bird and the Bee and the Brazilian Girls. And not only did I not find them through Pandora, but there’s no way I could have found them through Pandora. Their “musical qualities” do not match anything I listen to now; in fact, their musical qualities don’t much match anything else at all. (Well, maybe the Bird and the Bee have musical qualities similar to Beach House, but let us not digress.) This has less to do with sociocultural issues then with great musicians making pop music in a smart new way. The way you get to this is by reading blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear, and by keeping an eye on Pitchfork, and by checking out what your clued-in friends are listening to, and by listening to smartly curated online radio stations.

Pandora is great from time to time, but relying on it as your main source of music leads to nothing but ruts.

Dispute Finder

Dispute Finder While discussing the alleged death of polite disagreement at Rex’s blog last week, I expressed the idea that a lot of the disagreement stems from a disagreement about simple facts. It’s almost impossible to support healthcare reform bill if you think it includes “death panels,” and there are folks who consume media in such a way that they genuinely believe this. But even those with every right to call themselves reasonable are at prone to this effect — we tend to be more likely to believe the facts that jibe with our view of the world. Those facts then push our opinion farther along toward certainty, and make those who disagree with us seem ever less reasonable.

It follows that clarifying the facts is a potential way to begin restoring some of the civility that’s been lost from public discourse. By this I mean not only correcting incorrectly held beliefs, but also by exposing reasonable disagreements about what are often presented as established facts.

Interestingly, there is a tool intended to do exactly that: the Dispute Finder. It works like this: you install it as a Firefox extension, and it then alerts you when a fact you are seeing on the internet is in dispute, and cites a few disagreeing sources. It gets to know what sources you respect, and so if you’re a Republican, say, it’s more likely to point you to a story about how death panels are a hoax in the Wall Street Journal then in Harper’s magazine. (Demo here.) Try this at home!: do any of the statements below make you nod in agreement? Click through for contradictory evidence.

The point here isn’t that any of those claims are wrong — the point is that they are not nearly as clear cut as we might suppose, and that having our beliefs challenged makes us more likely to listen to those we disagree with, ergo more civil discourse. Two problems.

1) This is all well and good on the internet, but can we attach it to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s asses? And also better yet, what about my uncle who parrots Limbaugh, Beck, et al. at the Sunday cookout? Well, it turns out they’re working on that! Explains Dispute Finder developer Rob Ennals on a recent On the Media:

The bullshit detector is a thing that we’re planning to do next. It’s trying to apply the same kind of ideas we’re applying to the Web to information you hear in real life. So let’s say you’re in a conversation with somebody and they tell you something which is disputed. The device is going to buzz in your pocket and let you know that you just heard something disputed and perhaps you should question it. … [A]nother thing we’re planning [is] to apply this to closed caption TV text; that if some pundit on TV says something disputed, a thing will flash up at the bottom of your screen saying, this is a disputed claim. This source you trust disagreed with some of this.

Nice, right? Sign me up. And sign up my uncle. Better yet, sign up YOU and YOUR uncle, which brings us to

2) This is great, but how do I get the people who disagree with me to sign up for this? To wit, aren’t the very people who are disagreeably disagreeing the least likely to pay any attention to this type of technology? And at first I think this will be true. But I think it’ll have a snowball effect. As this type of technology spreads and improves, the desire for intellectual honesty will begin to drive its adoption. That is, even the most extreme conspiracy theorists want to claim to be open to opposing arguments, right? So unless this whole project manages to get painted as part of the liberal conspiracy (not inconceivable!), some portion of even the wackos at the fringes of the political parties will get on board, which will begin to soften — maybe — the craziness that’s therein harbored.

Bill Clinton speech before WebTrends

Something is rotten in the state of C-SPAN: I subscribe to C-SPAN’s Podcast of the Week [iTunes link], and yesterday heard a pretty great speech that Bill Clinton gave [mp3] last month to the Netroots convention. Pretty great speech, if only just to hear how well he can hold interest over a near-hour. Thing is, that link goes directly to an mp3, hosted locally at that, because I have no idea what’s going on with C-SPAN’s site. This page refers to the podcast, and as of this moment still links to the audio file, but there is no reference to the speech anywhere else on C-SPAN’s site that I can find, and no permanent link to the podcast item. Pardon me, but this does not seem like the right way to run a service that is the de-facto record of our government’s activities, does it?

Self Magazine recently “retouched” about 30 pounds off Kelly Clarkson for their cover photo

Self Magazine recently “retouched” about 30 pounds off Kelly Clarkson for their cover photo. But that sort of thing is nothing new, right? What is entertaining here is what Lucy Danziger, Self’s editor, came up with when her handlers apparently told her to write an explanation that ‘yeah, of course we “retouch,” but it’s all about producing a self-confident and happy image, not about making someone look skinnier.’ Here’s what she came up with: “This is art, creativity and collaboration. It’s not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.” The hypocrisy here is on par with politicians talking about Social Security. There is the widening gulf between reality and what can be acceptably said, and there is the requirement for people willing to talk around that gulf. (via)