Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pandora, the shirt I wanted was taken.

So, I attended a Pandora meetup last week, Pandora being the internet radio service that’s grown out of the music genome project that studies songs, assigning scores among 400 different “genes” to sort of stamp out what the qualities of a song are. It’s a mechanism for finding recommendations based on what you like, rather than genre expectations or cultural approval. They built it into a radio system where you plug in an artist or song that you like, and then play songs that are qualitatively similar.

A bit (the whole meet up was basically a “town hall” meeting led by Tim Westergren, one of the founders) went toward explain the selection process, which is the sort of gear shifting that interests me. Since the genes are rated, there’s score to a song. So the next song may be the next closest in score. If all but one gene is the same, the different one...ehh...rhythmic vocalizations*, will define the distance. A song with the score of 5 may be followed by one that’s equal except for a 3 in a gene, rather one euqal except with a 9. And there’s weight to the genes as well, so a song 5 apart on vibrato might still be played before another one that is only 2 apart, but on the tempo scale—changes in tempo being much more significant (the most significant, actually). A neat business that means you might hear a lot of Celine Dion (the most thumbed down artist), whatever you might think you like.

Interestedly, “era” is a gene, and means that song selections gravitate toward a 20 year spectrum from the jump off. That’s a little off to me, since it seems like a non-musicology oriented classification to have—maybe it’s used to account for the variance in production values of the years.

I’ve enjoyed the system, and think it’s worth a shot for those who want to sample something close to what they like. I discovered my love of No Doubt and Gwen Stefani—‘cause really, that’s just New Wave isn’t it? Sadly, no Duvall approved “dumb lyrics” +/- system has yet to be implemented.** The site itself may be robust enough to a have a community, for those into that sort of thing, though I wonder how many presences people can maintain. Anyway, Pandora is pretty big. It managed 400,000 faxes in three days, the fasted inundation of Congress ever, after a call to arms regarding recent RIAA royalty shenanigans and internet radio. A fact both impressive and sad (as Westergren noted), since it means the most people get riled about is when you threaten their free music.

Learned other things: its on an value-added advertising business model, random recs is an interesting idea that executes poorly, as is computer listening (Pandora has 50(?) full time trained listeners quantifying songs). Then I dodged a thunderstorm.

Didn’t get the nice looking shirt (for the best, I don’t need more shirts), but got a nice hat, though. You know me and hats.

* I’m making shit up.
** No, Pandora, I do not like Ashlee Simpson. Stop it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Reading list: Yotsuba&!

Yotsuba&! is the perfectest comic ever. If you do not think so, your heart has been replaced by a shriveled up turnip.

* EDITED TO ADD: On a related note, there's a new action figure. If you follow the links, I actually think the old one is better. Better yet, there should be a plush. Not that I'd get one, mind you...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stanook of Stanooklyn

After reading hcduvall's post on Civil War, I started thinking, "what other things piss me off?" and I immediately thought of the The Stanhattan Project. A few days ago, I found out about this outreach done by Marvel in the early 90's as a result of a conversation about Brian K. Vaughn. Now, I have nothing in particular to say about Vaughn. I think he has a great deal of talent and would have probably become a successful writer no matter what. But the way in which he broke into comics was particularly of interest. Vaughn was a sophmore at NYU studying dramatic writing when he came across the Stanhattan Project. Basically, at the time, Marvel was introspective enough to realize that there was an unhealthy amount of overlap between the writing staff and editorial staff. And like all incestuous relationships, the product was suffering. So, from what I've gathered from a few lazy google searches, they assigned two Marvel editors to NYU, with the express goal of finding new young talent, trained in diverse areas. Vaughn was a direct outcome of this program (where they would initially just script already paneled and inked pages). And I'd say he's one heck of a find.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, the Stanhattan Project sounds awesome. What the heck happened to it? Are the editors too busy drawing pin-ups for alternate covers? I make the case that comics are even more of an incestuous old boys club nowadays, and the cynical half-literate social commentary that Civil War thought itself to be aside, every major title seems to be suffering for it. I feel like I've been bouncing up and down with my hard-earned dollars in hand, just begging the doors to open every wednesday morning, and then walking away unable to buy a single thing. How is pit ossible for a company to continually push away a customer that is looking for every excuse to buy their product?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Alternate takes: Civil War

Civil War (for those of you who aren't Danny Don't) was Marvel's last event crossover where a disaster amongst superpowered beings prompted the US gov't to enact registration laws--an arguable "realistic" idea and really a pretty good one for a story. So all the superfolks line up for and against, and this being about superheros, punch their way to resolution. Along the way, Captain America starts recruiting sociopaths, Iron Man connives like Lex Luthor, Venom gets pupils, and I ponder who're the idiots who had to approve Clor. Basically, a good idea executed even worse than expected, which is to say, clumsier than having the drug czar's daughter in Traffic sell herself to the representative young/black man/inner city menace, who thankfully didn't talk jive like drug dealers in 21 Jump Street. Actually, Civil War's not that bad if you think of Tony Stark as Rhett Butler and Steve Rodgers as Scarlett O'Hara..."Frankly, Captain America, I don't give a damn." Spider-Man is Ashely and Reed Richards is codependent Mammy.* Except, I guess, the South wins.**

Anyway, it's just been revealed to much fanboy whinging, that instead of Loki or Iron Man himself, the whole fracas might've been instigated by the shape-shifting other known as Skrulls. A pretty weak idea. In the course of lamenting it, though, a Newsarama commenter describes the bad idea in the form of what I think is a great idea.

Suddenly, Skrulls!

If I was one of those folks with inclination, I'd photoshop a fake Broadway sign with that phrase, lights around it like 42nd Street or Ziegfeld Follies. I know it'd be hard in comic book form but Marvel should sure as hell make its next crossover a musical if it can.

* This might not make sense if you've read the book or watched the movie, of which I've done neither. It amuses me though.
** Until the Hulk, representing the economic and industrial might of more developed North, smashes. World War Hulk indeed. My next rpg character's gotta be named Sherman Hulk.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Big Brother is Watching...

Running off various conversations and perusing Boingboing, I've been wondering about the scope of privacy with all the new technology that is emerging. And the debate is getting shrill on both sides. You have people who don't ever want their pictures taken and posted, even if they are in a public setting. And you have others who contend that this first group are a bunch of wackos who don't understand technology and its penetration. And of course, tied up in all this is something of the debate over open source, DRM, Google scholar, and copyrights.

I don't have any clear answers on this, only a few observations. First, I'd love to see how Japan handles it. Second, I have to admit that the shrillness on the pro-tech, pro-open source side (for extreme lack of a better description) seems to me more galling than the other anti-tech side, if only because they've already accepted the increased influence of technology, but don't really understand why people get squeemish about it. It's that lack of empathy to a pretty understandable human reaction that I find disturbing.

Third, the pro-tech side seems to feel like measures to opt-out of programs like Google Streetview are sufficient. If you have the ability to get out of these things, then you shouldn't really complain. But I don't think that's enough. In basic photography, it's considered good etiquette that, if you take someone's picture (where they are clearly identifiable), you should ask them if it's okay for you to use it. Now, there's some question as to whether you do this before or after taking the shot, etc., but you are using someone else's image, which they may or may not be cool with. Simply as a respect matter, it's a nice thing to do.

The issue with opting out when you start discussing advanced technology is one of knowledge and accessibility. When shooting a movie or a photo, you can usually make immediate contact with the individuals to ask them for permission. At the very least, it is easier to make a good faith effort, because people are more likely to notice what you're doing. But with these other techs, it's difficult to know when you're online. In the same way that the recent Supreme Court case on gender discrimination was horribly decided, it seems galling that someone be reasonably expected to know when their images or identity are placed on something as vast as the internet and take legal and moral responsibility.

And this goes to an interesting question, not simply between the rights to property versus religion versus speech, but what we mean by public and private. Can we meaningfully "switch hats?" Do different protocols apply when we, say, run to the shops versus when we make political speech? To a certain extent, yes, in that political speech is governed by the first amendment, whereas running to the shops is governed by property. But to any observer, figuring out what is public and what is private is difficult to know, the moreso when you have the boundary of advanced technology taking the place of meetings and interactions between individuals.

In the end, my political sensibilities fire up. There is certainly a danger on the anti-tech side of too much privacy, of an inability to disclose anything for fear of embarrassment. This applies especially, I think, to government action and oversight, and you'll find no one more supportive of monitoring of public actions and roles. But, in the impulse to "democratize" (again, so not the right word) that is given by the Internet, the push against monolithic controls and eavesdropping which is such a common refrain amongst "Web 2.0 or 3.0"-ers must be tempered with the knowledge that "Big Brother" is not always a single organ. There can be just as much tyranny of the group, or just simply lots of individuals, as there is tyranny by one body. Just as there is a chilling effect when one group takes it upon itself to interfere excessively with other peoples' business, we have to be concerned about the stifling of expression and creativity if everyone is watching everyone else, particularly in public spaces. We watch celebrities because we are attracted to their public personas, but at the same time, most of us know enough not to want to have to constantly be putting up those personas. That's an issue that requires much more thought than is presented by the polarized debate.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Knocked Up

All I can say is "Go see it." Not quite as funny as "The 40-Year Old Virgin", but still hilarious.

Friday, June 1, 2007


Satoshi Kon's Paprika is a frequently beautiful movie about dreams, neurotic ones and others, but mostly controlling dreams. Specifically how they exert their own influences on the people who carry them. Plot: there's an invention (the DC Mini), created by a childish genius (Tokita) that allows people to enter each others' dreams and...well...just share them really. Actually controlling them, like lucid dreaming, is a pretty nebulous concept here. Perhaps one can coax insight from them instead. Some of the prototypes go missing, and while there are beneficial unauthorized uses of such things (as by Paprika, the instinctual therapist), suffice to say there's some dangerous circumstances when dreams are let loose; ambition and dreams mix uncontentedly. There's also a cop and an unsolved murder, and the chairman of the board, who doesn't seem to like any of this. And along the way Kon may show you a parade (probably no less fantastic if you happen to recognize some of the mystical creatures within).

The spectacles onscreen are entertaining and fun, but don't overwhelm the pretty straightforward ideas that presented, and which actually don’t collapse after a glance.* Quite the rare thing in anime. Kon is telling a story about creativity itself and the people who traffic in it. All geniuses are creative people, whether artists or scientists, and share the same drive. Its quite a refreshing thing to see the trappings of modernity not as something dehumanizing—harmony and well-being as being possible within modernity. Paprika has neither the abject simple wonder of technology of say, Steamboy, or fetishing as with Oshii or Shirow, or just retrograde, luddite thinking (anything in feudal French costume). Hayao Miyazaki probably sits somewhere between in this (he’s just melancholy). I’m sure one who spelunk further and other themes than that, like the connection between dreaming and movies that gets its own airing out, but I haven’t unpacked all the imagery just yet.

The most pleasant surprise to me, I will venture to add, were the women in the movie. That Dr. Chiba and Paprika are fully-realized people. Paprika has pretty traditional ideas about sex, but mature and respectful ones. And the women are active in the story. And as opposed to men with breasts and guns, they are adults.

It’s a movie about movies while not being about just this movie. It's about things Satoshi Kon has thought about before (and had more than one conversation about). It doesn’t lecture, and it entertains, and it’s warm and imaginative. That's more than you get most days, and not in your summer blockbusters.

*Oh Ghost in the Shell 2, you are the dumbest, boringest cyborg story ever made. Pretty though.

fast zombies vs. slow zombies

Slow zombies are the slow, horrible encroachment. Damp things you can't stop. Slow zombie movies are about life without your brain. Being dead in your body or your mind. That's useful metaphoring right there.

Fast zombies are pouncy, like smelly sabertooth tigers. Or big roaches. Fast zombie movies are slasher films. That's panic, not dread.

Slow zombies rule.