Sunday, December 28, 2008

Can computers *really* predict the music I will like?

In my neverending quest to find great music on the internet, I ended up moving beyond the simple streaming services. Not that I have anything against the staple of internet radio. In fact, as I've said before, I'm an avid listener of stations like smoothbeats.com and beatbasement.com. But sometimes I want to hear music that fits my mood. A playlist that goes beyond embracing a certain genre, and maybe goes two or three sub-genres deep. Usually that would mean firing up my own music collection. That is, until I discovered a site called Last.fm a few years ago. Their famed audioscrobbler is actually a computer algorithm that gathers info on the music you like, and matches it up with music it "thinks" you should like. I was addicted for a while until I figured out that the scrobbling game had some competition around town. I'll break a few of the major players down for you.

Last.fm
Ah, the apple of my eye. Last.fm was my *first* music recommendation site, and I still have a soft spot for it. Last.fm re-introduced me to underground hip-hop and started my love affair with internet radio. Their recommendation system was AWESOME to my novice ears. Basically, you allow Last.fm to "listen" to the music in your personal library, and then it can make recommendations based on similar artists. So I played some MF Doom (Mouse & The Mask) for them, and in response I heard a cut from what I would now describe as the greatest underground hip-hop album of all time: The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. And I was in a FEVER for more! Their catalog of music was LIMITLESS, unlimited streaming subscriptions were CHEAP (like $6 for 90 days), and you could build your own playlist of music!!! But, alas, the years (and a corporate acquisition by CBS) were not kind to the O.G. of audioscrobbling. Their decline began in early 2008 as they started losing the rights to TONS of music. Playlists became worthless, and their music was repetitive. Today, I can still recommend it in good conscience. But the serious music fan will quickly outgrow it. Here are the highlights:
  • MULTIPLE listening clients for Windows, Mac and Linux. As Last.fm uses open source software, there are literally dozens of programs that support streaming including 3rd party clients as well as the official release. You can even stream tunes through their website using flash!
  • Playlist support. Even though licensing issues have watered down this feature, it's still killer. Hear something you like? Save it to your playlist for later listening...
  • Multiple streaming stations. Want to hear your just songs that you "love"? Or maybe just recommendations? Last.fm's got you covered.
  • Did I mention the social networking? Stream your neighbors' radio stations and connect with others of similar interests. For a while, this was my favorite feature. Unfortunately, there's only so much social networking that people are willing to indulge in within a week. The Facebook juggernaught is assimilating all others. Soon, I think sites like Last.fm will exclusively pipeline their social netowkring feature through Facebook. It's inevitable.
Slacker
Man, I like this site purely for the name. It's a little different from Last.fm. It can't listen to your music collection for clues, but as you listen, you can gives songs the thumbs up or down. This is definitely the hard way to do things (similar to Yahoo Music and AOL), but it works if you're patient. What puts Slacker ahead of the curve is its mobile lifestyle aspirations. Slacker takes the recommendation model one step further and offers a portable radio player with wifi. It syncs new music across the internet to the player, and voila! You got new tunes! In addition, they are deploying the player software into mobile phones on Sprint's network, so expect some big things from this rookie player. I don't use them for my everyday listening, but when they start supporting my mobile phone, I'm all over them!

Pandora
I saved my favorite for last. Pandora is quite simply the most ingenious music recommendation system ever invented. And it's a CRYING SHAME that they have not invaded the mobile space like Slacker!!! Do you hear me Pandora??? GET ON WINDOWS MOBILE AND BLACKBERRY! WE NEED YOU!!! Whew. Sorry. Got a little out of control there. But I REALLY like Pandora. The secret, my friends, is in the sauce. Here's what I wrote about them a few weeks ago:
"You're greeted by the site asking you for an artist you like. That's when the magic starts. Even obscure artists seem to have had their music BROKEN DOWN and defined for Pandora's recommendation engine. It literally knows what basic ELEMENTS (beat pacing, rhyme style, musical genre) define each artist, and matches those elements to other artists. This is FUNDAMENTALLY different from Last.fm's audioscrobbler which simply matches similar artists. It was so accurate that I listened my first night for HOURS! I am in music-love all over again! Pandora's my new home for underground beats."
Did I mention that I receive NO monetary compensation from Pandora. At all. My only issue is that the available streaming clients are a bit....... heavy. Other than their website stream, Pandora offers an Adobe Air client that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. You get music, recommendations, history, and advertisements. Might as well fire up the web browser with all that crap. That said, I would STILL recommend Pandora over all others. Seriously, their recommendation engine is *that* good!

Give me some feedback, folks. I know there are other services out there. Which ones do *you guys* use. Do you have a preference for any of the ones I mentioned here? Next time, I'll be talking about internet TV and the HULU invasion. Until then, Happy New Year, people!!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I am a techno-pimp

I just bought a bluetooth speaker with a built-in FM transmitter. Now, I can take mobile phone calls in my car and hear the other person through my car speakers. But more importantly, I can stream LIVE internet radio through my car speakers from my mobile phone. And there's NOT A SINGLE WIRE to get in the way! WhooHaaa!!! (GI Joe-style - see below)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What are YOU watching?

The last seven or eight years have sort of been a renaissance for genre television, especially when I reflect back on my formative years in the late 80's when Star Trek: The Next Generation was *the* only sci-fi on the tube. And even more recently, some of the greatest television EVER has been sci-fi themed, occasionally escaping the confines of its genre niche. I think......and don't quote me on this.....but I think it all started with Buffy. There was a year, perhaps '02 or '03 where EVERYBODY was either quoting or talking about the Slayer. It had crossed over, however briefly, into the mainstream, and Joss Whedon had achieved television god-hood status.

Today, genre television has an embarrassment of riches (haven't heard that phrase for years, and I was dying to use it). And in a way, those shows owe their existence and acceptance to Buffy. Whedon created "the formula" for a genre television show that could attract men AND women of all ages. And more than occasionally he was able to capture the non-geek audience. JJ Abrams took that formula and created a new TV bible with shows like Alias, Lost, and now Fringe. And ironically, while Abrams (the Igor in this Frankenstein drama) is enjoying fame and fortune on the small AND the big screen, Whedon (the mad Doctor) has been booted from the hallowed halls of the academy after his failed Serenity, and is slumming it with Fox and the "doomed before it even airs" Dollhouse series. Talk about a twist of fate! I remember when Whedon was UNTOUCHABLE, but now he's paired back up with the "other" second-rate Slayer, on the network where genre shows go to die, the infamous Fox. How the mighty have fallen...

Whoa, I have seriously gone off-topic. Today, I just wanted to touch on some of the genre shows currently airing that I believe are exceptional, as well as booing a few that I think should be put down like a thoroughbred with a broken leg. And MOST of these are available on Hulu for on-demand viewing, in keeping with the tech focus of this blog.

The Good

1. First up is Battlestar Galactica! While modern network genre TV owes its roots to Buffy, everything on cable is six-degrees of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Galactica's creator, Ron Moore, is only one of Trek's former writers who went on to create excellent cable shows. If you ever watched Dead Zone, 4400 or Carnivale, give a little credit to Trek as their birth mother. Galactica comes to an end this spring. The first of 12 final episodes will begin airing in late January or February. Seriously, the writing on this show is so good, it has made other TV shows with average writing unwatchable for me.



2. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Summer Glau is the best Terminator to ever play the role. And that's a serious statement, as she's measured against Arnold. But, man she's intense. In fact, the entire show is intense. And that, plus the fact that it's on Fox, may be it's undoing. I just hope they get a chance to wrap up the story before it goes away. In any case, the cast and writers on this project have given us some of genre television's best moments.

3. Lost - This show gets better every year. And even though my faith was shaken during Season 2, that Desmond and Penny episode in Season 4 was absolutely, positively the BEST EPISODE OF TELEVISION EVER WRITTEN, genre or no. There, I said it.

4. Fringe - Hmmmm. This one barely makes my "Good" list. But it took a couple of years for the X-Files to get really good, so I'm willing to cut Fringe some slack. It's worth a look. Even though it's on Fox and will probably get cancelled.

4. Stargate SG-1 - Ever since Ben Browder of Farscape fame took up the mantle in Season 9, this unprecedented TEN (10) season series has reached a sort of legendary status. And even though the show has ended, they are still cranking out direct-to-DVD movies once per year. When Trek died, this is the show that carried the torch.

5. Knight Rider - PURE and utter trash, but it's a guilty pleasure. Just like the original.

6. Torchwood - After a shaky first season, Torchwood delivered a PHENOMENAL sophomore effort, bringing in heavyweights like Buffy's James Marsters for a few episodes. This is British sci-fi at it's finest.

7. True Blood - Soooo conflicted about this series. I was ready to throw in the towel after the first three episodes. I love explicit sex and gratuitous violence as much as the next guy, but I was wondering about the plot until episode five or so. The characters and side plots eventually grew on me, and I ended up addicted after the hippy vampire-killer chick turns up. But, can I tell you what's lame? The shapeshifter guy can turn into anything, but when the chips are down and our hero Sookie needs to be rescued, he turns into a little dog?! Wow...

The Bad

1. Doctor Who - No, I'm not bashing the good doctor. In fact, some of the best episodes in the history of the show were last season. But MAN, there were some stinkers! That season finale WAS A CROCK!!! However, with the prospect of a new female doctor, perhaps there's hope for this series.

2. Stargate Atlantis - Zzzzzzzzz. Is this show still on?

3. Smallville - Someone PLEASE put this show out of it's misery! Lex was the only thing interesting about last season, but recently, even Rosenbaum seemed to be phoning it in. Without him or James Marsters as Brainiac, this show is worthless.

The Ugly

1. Heroes - I sooooooo want to love this show. Season 1, although occasionally flawed, was a masterpiece. Season 2 was broken, but watchable and certainly had it's moments. But the current Season 3 is a crime against all genre television. After five episodes, I wanted to choke the writers. After another five, I was reinspired that perhaps there was hope for the show. And then, episode 12, "Our Father" did something that made me want to kick the writers in their collective nuts or ovaries, as the case may be. Hiro teleports to the past, gets his mother to heal his damaged memories, and has one of the best dramatic moments of the series as he tells her how much he missed her growing up, and vows to protect the "catalyst" that she has given him as he has become a real hero now. Then FIVE FRICKIN MINUTES LATER, Daddy Petrelli shows up, bitch-slaps Hiro, steals the catalyst AND Hiro's time/space powers, and drops him off the side of a building. And this is the true failure of the series: INCONSISTENCY! Characters change course every episode. No one BELIEVES in anything. The heroes are all accidental! Powers work one way in one episode, and another way in a different episode. The Haitian (why he doesn't have a name after three years is a mystery to me) can suppress everyone's powers within a 500 yard radius without even NOTICING, much less breaking a sweat earlier in the series. But in "Our Father" he yells, "Your father is too powerful, Peter. I can't hold him back much longer!" QUE?! I call bullsh*t. Remember when I mentioned the lame horse that needed to be put down? Heroes is that horse. Somebody shoot it. Please.

Sooo, what are *you* watching these days? Any good sci-fi that I missed?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

And you don't stop!

So, I went back and forth on this latest entry for my Urban Thought Collective blog, Check The Tech-Nique. First I was going to review some netbooks (Asus EeePC, Acer One, HP Mini-1000, etc). But a few days later, fresh from setting up my Home Theater PC, I was all set to talk about Boxee and the new online TV options that are cropping up (Hulu, et al). And in the end, my focus for the next few entries *will* be online media, but I have decided to start with music rather than TV or movies. My reasons are primarily selfish. :-) I tend to blog about the tech issues that are having the most impact on my life at the time. And right now, I am spending four days a week driving and living out of hotels. With so much windshield and hotel downtime, my music has gone from an important part of my life, to CRITICAL to my sanity. So, today, I am going to talk about the online music options that are available, some of the differences between them, and which ones are the best of breed regardless of your particular tastes.

DISCLAIMERS:
  • I am a die-hard, unapologetic underground hip-hop fan.
  • I have not listened to the AM/FM radio in five years.
  • I don't buy CD's, only MP3's
  • I don't own, nor will I *ever* own, an iPod. I *do* own an MP3 player.
  • I listen to more sheer hours of music per day than any other person I know
  • I LOVE music. Passionately.
Now that you know where I'm coming from, are we good? Awesome. So, for the online music novice, the playing field is divided into a couple of different categories. The first is your basic streaming radio station. The second is what's called a music recommendation service. Today, I'll be discussing the first. A streaming internet radio station is similar in concept to a traditional radio station, with some notable exceptions. AM/FM radio stations broadcast music or talk that focuses on a particular genre (i.e., sports, R&B, oldies, etc). Internet radio is similar in that respect. However, the key difference is in the loyalty to that genre. Internet radio has a MUCH tighter genre focus. If you want salsa, there is an internet radio station somewhere out there streaming all salsa, all the time. The really cool thing about the genre loyalty is that lots of artists that get zero airplay on traditional radio, end up with a ton of exposure on internet radio. For example, any serious underground hip-hop fan could tell you that Aesop Rock is one of the most gifted lyricists to ever pick up a microphone. Or that MURS is quite possibly the savior of modern hip-hop. Neither artist has ever been played on Power 106, Kiss FM, or Hot 97, but internet hip-hop stations can't get enough of them! The other key difference is commercials. Even though almost all internet radio is free of charge, most stations don't even play commercials. Or if they do, it's like one commercial an hour. Did I mention that most internet radio is also uncensored? So far, so good, right? Tight genre focus, no commercials, uncensored, and free. What's the downside? Well, unless you are ready to shell out some serious $$$ for an exotic specialty product, internet radio is tied to your computer, and you need a broadband internet connection. Don't get me wrong, products like the Squeezebox are slowly bringing internet radio to the unwashed masses, but it's still a niche market right now. Your best bet is to hook up some speakers to your laptop and call it a day. Internet radio in your car is still a geek's solution. So, if you're still ready, I'm going to run down a few internet radio index sites that will let you search for different individual stations. I will also recommend a few stations that I listen to on a daily basis.

Index Sites
  • Shoutcast - This is the granddaddy of all internet radio. Started by AOL almost 10 years ago, Shoutcast is the one-stop-shop for most net music surfers. It's easy to navigate, generates reliable results, and your music is only a click away.
  • 000Audio - A relative newcomer to the scene, but they've got a lot of stations hooked up. The stations are all medium sound-quality, though. As opposed to Shoutcast which lists a range of sound-quality from CD down to AM radio.
  • Live365 - Another oldie from the 90's. They use an ad/subscription-based model. You can pay to listen to music ad-free, but if you don't, you end up subjected to the same Trojan condom commercial every 20 minutes. Seriously guys, at least rotate commercials. I understand that your sponsors are limited, but maybe record a *few* different ads instead of that same one with the pig squealing about the condoms (yes, it's true). I still give Live365 an honorable mention because one of their stations includes the most awesome beatbasement, one of the few quality underground stations out there.
  • 1Club.FM - Another newcomer. They've got a bazillion stations listed, and they are free, but you do need to signup for their newsletter.
Streaming Stations
  • Smoothbeats - There can only be one. This is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best underground hip-hop station on the internet. I've been listening for six years and counting. They broadcast in CD-quality 24/7 for free with zero ads (unless you include a few station sweepers an hour). They even do some live DJ shows. PLEASE listen to them.
  • Beatbasement - Even broadcasting in AM radio quality, I will STILL listen to them. Hell, I used to listen to 1580 KDAY when I was a kid, and I didn't even know the difference!
  • Club 977 - The 80's - I include this only for my wife who is a die-hard 80's rock fan. If you need a fix of Phil Collins or Robert Palmer, this is your station.
  • Rhapsody - Yes, I know they are a commercial company. But their service is actually really cool. For a $15/month subscription, you can stream any song in their library ON-DEMAND! And they have a HUGE library.
In two weeks, I will review the most popular music recommendation sites and tell you which ones are worth your time and your hard earned cash.