Media: Computer Computational Science

There’s a cool article (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=00020D04-CFD8-146C-8D8D83414B7F0000) on Software Design Checkers in the new Scientific American; as anyone who’s worked in a production environment knows, there are few things shittier than trying to get work done and being hampered by your software.

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maybe this is weird…

But I’m sort of annoyed that Wired runs a story every couple of weeks about how the iPod is the hi-fi giant-killer, how haughty vinyl purists are being brought low by the mighty iPod. (Current article here (http://www.wired.com/news/columns/0,70901-0.html))

First off, the only people who are really downing the iPod are snobs. The iPod is a nice piece of technology, maybe the best thing Apple has made. But it’s not a substitute for a good hi-fi rig. Especially out of the box– those iPod headphones are gross. More than that, though, an iPod is still a digital source, which means you have to throw a bunch of money at it to get it to sound anywhere near as good as a low-end turntable.

I’m actually curious how lossless compression on an iPod sounds compared to a good CD player, say the Musical Fidelity A5 (about which I have dreams on a regular basis). (There’s that apocryphal story about the confounded audiophiles, but I want to hear it for myself) I’m pragmatic, and if I can get good sound out of an iPod, then great. But it seems really stupid to spend a bunch of money tricking out your iPod when you can just buy a good CD player.

I think it’s the spirit of the articles that really bugs me. It’s this nasty levelling attitude– that my iPod is just as good as your rig and you’re a snob and a fool for listening to vinyl and investing in stereo equipment.

It doesn’t bother me at all if you want to listen to your iPod (or hook it up to your Bose speakers) and that’s the furthest you want to go with music and sound. But I am more picky about that sort of thing, and I resent these articles popping up on my Wired RSS feed all the fucking time.

Deal-breakers

I love the radio, but I think that it’s something that’s really gone downhill, even from my parents’ day. DJs used to just play what they felt like playing (or what they were paid to play, natch) without really thinking about whether it was more properly rock or country or whatever. But more recently, radio stations only play Hard Rock or whatever their niche is. (I don’t know what the agency behind this is, whether it be licensing or focus grouping or advertising– any input would be appreciated) (Full disclosure: I don’t really know what ‘natch’ means, or how to properly use it)

This may be fine for whatever majority or plurality of the population just wants to listen to the same five oldies over and over, but the real losers are us serious musical omnivores.

Satellite radio really isn’t an answer to this. There are two competing theories here, broadcasting and niche marketing. Radio is pretty much balkanized; very few radio stations broadcast in any real sense of the word. At some level, though, broadcasting is deeply useful. I don’t want to think about every song on the radio while I’m driving; I want to drive. Delegating that decision makes your life easier, and better.

Finding a great radio station, finding a station that broadcasts to you, is a wonderful thing. I have a mental list of all of the radio stations I’ve really liked in my life, and sometimes, I’m like, ‘yeah, FM4 (out of Austria) is fucking great.’

When I listen to the radio, I listen to either the urban top 40 station (which is such a vilely PC term) or the straight top 40 station, and I’ll keep one of those on until I hit a deal-breaker, a song so actively bad that I’ll change the station. Dem Franchise Boyz, for example. I think a lot of people operate like this. Radio stations are trying to keep this from happening, because when you switch away you don’t get to hear their advertising and you cost them money. I think the deal-breaker factor may be a big reason that the balance of power in radio has shifted from broadcasting music to marketing to a specific niche.

Technologically, we’re at a level where we should be able to rectify this. Bandwidth is cheap, audio is relatively lightweight and audio compression has been around forever. It’s easy to imagine a radio with a deal-breaker button, where if that Nickelback song came on the radio, you could press a button and you’d never have to hear it again (ideally).

At the client level, this shouldn’t be too hard to implement. I could see a standalone client, or, were radio infrastructure to ever change, a client-server structure could make this sort of thing really powerful.

As a standalone thing, one way to implement it would be to make a radio with multiple audio inputs. You tune the radio to a primary and backup station. Behind the scenes, the backup input records and (maybe) compresses the most recent few songs from your backup station. When you press the deal-breaker button, your radio plays the backup song. When the backup song is finished, the radio switches back to your primary station, which brings us to a slight snag.

You want your radio to seamlessly play whole songs, I think. If the backup song is longer than the deal-breaker, you could record the new song on your primary station until you switch back. If the deal-breaker is horribly dragging on, you could play another backup song. There would be some lag after you switch back to the primary station, but I don’t that’d be a big deal. A little buffering never hurt anyone, and it’d only happen until you shut off the car or radio and reset the system.

This set-up would only allow you to switch away from whatever song you don’t want to listen to at the moment. A better idea, I think, would be to have a persistent song blacklist. (Also, I think a radio station probably wants you to keep listening to their content, not switching off to someone else at your leisure) At a server level, songs would have to be tagged. And a persistent blacklist would make for some problems, most obviously that you’re losing a certain amount of time, i.e. if you’re listening to top 40 and you just skip number 8 each time it comes up in the hour, you’re going to have less than an hour of music at the end of the hour. But once again, a little lag is no big problem. And then there’d have to be some way for the radio station to send the deal-breaker backup. One potentially easy way would be for the radio station to send a compressed backup song in some fashion.

This would be nice, because it allows radio infrastructure to remain largely in place. And that’s good because radio is neat.