Archive for August, 2013

Discovering a Company of Thieves

portable-imperial-party-time

In the age of the connected digital Network, they call it “discovery”. It’s not what you like right now, or what you’ve liked in the past — it might be described as what you’ll like in the future. Mostly it doesn’t work, but on occasion something delightful it discovered. The algorithm usually goes like this: if you like tea, you’d probably also like this weak tea. When a discovery occurs, it usually has nothing to do with tea.

The problem is “discovery” actually works through leaps, gaps and other forms of discontinuities. Algorithms can provide options along a path of logical extension. The further the extension moves from the source, the weaker the connection. The strange thing is that when the connection becomes so weak it’s non-existent, that’s when discovery might happen. Machines that attempt to replicate serendipity have trouble with this last piece. That zone of strangeness feels a bit like chaos to them — there’s no reason at all to take the next step in any particular direction. If you’ve been down this road, you know this point in a process of discovery is different from randomness. The accumulated context makes a difference.

When you’re young and for the first time discovering a lot of new music, there’s always some older figure who turns you on to the music from your future. There are new worlds in front of you — outside your realm of experience. A stack of records can give you a preview into the soundtrack of these alien worlds. This is how young minds are blown. It’s also the kind of peak experience that can stay with you for a lifetime. To some extent, all music going forward will be compared to those transformational sounds.

Once you’ve grown up, figured out what you like and filled up your library with your favorites; discovery becomes a much more difficult process. That transformational process isn’t likely to happen again. You “are” that older figure, and now you’re annoyed that young people today don’t appreciate the music that first turned you on.

If you’re storing your music in the cloud, your music provider probably knows your library better than you do. Every “play” is logged and plotted to determine what you currently like and what you’ll like and purchase next. This is where you’ll find complex genomes of music underlying auto-generated playlists mixing with the quantified self.

I recently discovered a band called “Company of Thieves“. I wasn’t looking for them, or anything like them. I was actually more interested in learning about what Daryl Hall was doing these days. I’d had an interest in him since his first solo album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — the long delayed “Sacred Songs“. (Check out his vocals on the song “North Star“). I’d seen a few moments of “Live from Daryl’s House” on television and traced it back to the web. YouTube provided a nice selection of the greatest hits from the show. The clips of “Company of Thieves” kept drawing me back. There was something about them. There isn’t an obvious link between Daryl Hall’s music and what Company of Thieves does. There’s no recommendation engine that spit would out “if you like Daryl Hall, you’ll probably like Company of Thieves”.

queen-of-hearts-cot

Chicago-based Company of Thieves (Genevieve Schatz and Marc Walloch) has released two albums on Wind-Up Records, but despite their best efforts hadn’t broken through on any of the media that I follow. The band’s appearance on “Live from Daryl’s House” was in January of 2009. It’s with these four-year old videos that I started following their story. There’s not much in the mainstream music press. It was really through YouTube that I was able to piece together an idea of the range of the band’s sound.

While I loved The Beatles when I was younger, these days I find it hard to listen to them. I’ve heard the songs too many times. It’s the Beatles Anthology recordings that still have some interest for me. I like hearing the songs in their rough form, it’s there that I can see through to the bones of the song to see if it still works. Company of Thieves has done something similar. Their finished recordings have very complex and compelling arrangements; the band gets a very big sound. But they’ve also released videos of acoustic performances of their songs — and not in an ideal studio environment. Instead, they perform out in the world, without a net. Not only can they actually perform the songs from their recordings, they can put them across in the ordinary world — on a beach, riding in a car, on a moving train, at an amusement park and walking down the street in the rain. To me, that makes a connection that a lot of computer-based music has lost.

When I think about the criteria used in my process of discovery, it doesn’t seem like something that could be wrapped up into an algorithm, scaled up and served out to the masses. I want something that I’ve never heard before. It might even be something that I don’t initially like; something that takes a while to grow on me. It might even take a couple of weeks before I decide that I need to buy this music and support the artists. This kind of discovery is pretty rare, and that’s part of what’s good about it. If I could push button and receive a new discovery every day that was custom-built based on the artifacts of my listening behavior, it would soon grow boring. And what could be worse than a cloud-based networked computer program that effectively caused me to become bored with my own taste.

I understand that Company of Thieves is working on some new music. That makes me smile.

Podcasting is Broken

Radio-microphone

There was a moment in podcasting, before iTunes became its index, that a whole bunch of people saw the promise of the medium and set out to make it work for the masses. Odeo, the company that failed at podcasting, but succeeded at creating Twitter, was one of the many that entered the field. When iTunes added podcasting to its index, it killed a whole crop of new companies. Something about podcasting had been solved.

podcast-subscribe

Since that time, podcasting remains broken for mass audiences. It turns out that Apple’s index did nothing to fix the fundamental brokenness. Most people don’t know how to subscribe to a podcast and sync it to a mobile device. They don’t know how to get the next episode. On the podcast production side the reverse has happened. Practically everyone now knows how to create a podcast. The number of podcasts available through iTunes is staggering.

dawn_and_drew

Podcasting started as an outsider medium, but quickly podcasting networks were created. These were generally pushed by former mainstream media figures hoping to create their own empires outside of the established media empires. It felt a little like the wild west. And then public radio, the BBC, television news and subscription cable channels discovered podcasting as delayed distribution window for their programming. Podcasting now included video and its value as a second-order distribution window increased again. Suddenly the lists of top podcasts didn’t contain names like Dawn and Drew, but were filled with shows from NPR and HBO. Stand-up comics were the next to discover the medium and now almost every comic either has a podcast or is a regular guest on a podcast.

The original podcasts focused on technology, initially on the technology of podcasting itself. There are still a number of programs that focus on technology, but the speed of blog-based tech reporting has undercut much of their value. They’re now a small niche in the podcasting universe. Apple recently reported that since the summer of 2005 they’ve processed one billion podcast subscriptions. Even with all those subscriptions, podcasting is still broken.

marc_maron

An individual podcast has a freshness date; after a certain amount of time passes its value decreases dramatically. Unlike a music file, once you’ve listened to a podcast you don’t need it any more — just as you wouldn’t generally watch a news broadcast more than once. I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, but only listen to 5 or 6 regularly. With the rest, I pick my spots. In my daily routine the podcast has taken the place of broadcast radio. I listen in the car, and play the shows I want to hear in the only window I have to listen to that kind of programming. My car radio receives a signal from my mobile device (iPhone) and plays over the car’s speakers. Generally the file resides on the memory of the device, occasionally the file is streamed over a cellular network.

culturefest

The brokenness of podcasting at first seems like a big opportunity. Apple’s iTunes still has the biggest index of programming, but that doesn’t make anything seem less broken. Take a look at the reviews for podcatchers, the apps used to listen to podcasts to get a sense of how broken most people think things are. One ongoing issue with podcasting has been the lack of hyperlinking in audio files. Reciting URLs with offer codes just isn’t the same as saying “click here”. Podcasts must have an accompanying show page to post links mentioned in the podcast. It’s possible that may be about to change. Apple once again steps in. They’ve filed a patent application for Audio Hyperlinking in Podcasts, Television and more. Here are the details as reported by Patently Apple:

By encoding audio hyperlinks into audio streams, audio streams can take advantage of the ability to link between resources currently available in web browsers and other text-based systems. A system employing audio hyperlinks can allow users to jump between the audio stream and other resources.

As with hypertext systems, an audio hyperlinking system employs hyperlink information encoded into the audio stream that can be used by an electronic device to identify, access, and perform linked resources.

In one embodiment, a button, such as a button on a headset normally used for accepting a call, may be double-clicked to indicate that a hyperlink should be traversed, and triple-clicked (or single clicked) to indicate a return to the original audio stream.

In another embodiment, activation of the call accept button may be combined with activation of the volume increase button to cause the hyperlink to be traversed, and activation of the call accept button combined with activation of the volume decrease button to cause the traversal to be halted and to resume the playback of the original audio stream.

In some embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that are audible to a listener of the audio stream. In other embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that is inaudible to a human listener, such as a tone at a frequency that is outside of the normal hearing range of 20 Hz-20 KHz, but which may be detected and recognized by the electronic device playing the audio stream, causing an effect in a user interface.

The audio hyperlink may change the economics of the podcasting business. In particular, the “inaudible” audio link has some interesting possibilities. But it won’t solve the index and subscription issues. Podcast listening could definitely be easier for the audience. Sync-ing could be removed from picture if there were lower cellular data costs and an all streaming model. However the primary issue remains that there are a million channels on the podcast station selector and most people can’t even find it.

jesse-thorn

The more I thought about the brokenness of podcasting, the more I realized that I hoped it remained broken. The more podcasting starts to look and work like mainstream broadcasting, the less interesting it will become. It’s in the shards of a broken process that interesting new voices emerge. Outsiders still have a chance to be heard. When podcasting is “fixed” it’ll be by one of the Stacks and then they’ll own and define it. It’ll be expected to turn a profit.

Podcasting is broken in an exquisite sort of way. It’s broken in a way that we’ll miss when it’s gone — the way some morn the old days of the web. In an era of solutionism, we lack the capacity to see something that’s broken in a good way.

Look on my Works ye Mighty and Despair!

king-corn

It might be a way for a television show entering its final season to tell the audience that the empire built up by the main character over the years is about to come apart. That’s where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandiasmakes an appearance.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

A poem may have a use as a preview for a television series. It might provide a comment on the inevitable decline of empires built through raw power. On our sofas in front of our big screens, at our desks gazing at computer screens, on our smart phones as we navigate the foot traffic of the sidewalk, we hear the poem and put it into the context of the story arc of a television show. From the safety of our media consumption dens we see the folly of powerful empires in the face of the sands of time. The show, by means of the poem, tells the audience about a particular way to watch the show. More than half a million people heard Shelley’s poem in the five-day period after it was published to the Network. In this context, the poem has a certain utility, but it also bursts out of that frame.

Shelley thought of a poem as a message in a bottle from the future. A powerful poem, this one was written in 1818, continues to deliver messages to the present for a good long time. The poem remains in the future until it has no more it can tell us. “Ozymandias” continues to speak.

The poem’s construction gives us a whole series of nested narrators, interlocking boxes of perspective. We, the readers, are also implicated in this chain of perspectives. It turns out that “we” are Ozymandias, it might be us speaking those words that appear on the pedestal. As we appear to have a relation to the broken and buried stone figures of Ozymandias, so will future civilizations have that same relationship to us.

The desert of Shelley’s poem brings to mind the landscapes of Craig Childs’s “Apocalyptic Planet“. Childs visits landscapes of heat and sand, ice and wind, and fields of volcanic lava. He returns to us a traveler from an antique land. He winds up his Long Now Foundation talk on his journeys with the place he called the most terrifying apocalyptic landscape. Childs and a friend hiked and camped for two days and three nights in an Iowa GMO corn field. For Childs the corn field has much in common with the other apocalyptic landscapes he visited. These are places where the earth becomes “lots of one thing and not much of any other.” King corn has a message written into its DNA. The pesticides carved into the pedestal of its genetic code are a broadcast message to any living entities who might enter its empire: “look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

cranston-web

The other message delivered in this reading of Shelley’s poem has to do with what attitude, what feeling, we get from the ruins of Ozymandias’s broken stone statues. There’s the “frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” and the command to “look on my Works and despair.” We get the feeling of a civilization built on the fear of power — of the many living in fear of the few. If we are Ozymandias, what message we will leave behind for a future generation to ponder?

It’s here that the writer George Saunders’s commencement speech to the students of Syracuse University emerges in the poem. As an older person he wanted to tell this group of young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, what he regretted in his life. And here’s the message written on his pedestal: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness”. George Saunders is also Ozymandias, but an Ozymandias who has read and been affected by Shelley’s poem.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Saunders’s consciousness has been upgraded by the poetry of English romanticism. It’s not just that the sands of time have buried and broken this antique emperor named Ozymandias, but that only a small piece of that culture survives. For Saunders, we read this command from the pedestal: “err in the direction of kindness.” The poem asks you as you read it: “What is your message in a bottle for the future?”