Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Why Napster was All That(TM)

Jennifer and I were talking last night over dinner (pork-apple sausages and risoto...mmm) and we started comparing notes about what made the early days of music sharing so engaging. Well, that's not what we started talking about, but that's where we wound up, and as we talked it over, we kind of came to one of those "aha!" moments when we both realized that what we loved about the early days was the relative openess of the sharing (no fear of reprisal) and the ability to find new music through people whose tastes we trusted. These weren't friends, but people whose collections we could look through and then sample something we'd never ever heard before.

For us (and I suspect a lot of other people), that's what it was all about. Finding NEW stuff, not buying the same old shit you've heard played to death (and then ressucitated and played to death again) on top-40 radio. The music stores that exist today (even iTMS, for as good an experience as it provides) fall down hard when presented with this task. Apple has tried to get some of this back with "celebrity play lists", but that's a poor excuse for searching preferences by preference nexus. That was the really powerful thing: being able to search, in essence, for other people who had the same tastes you did based on what they already had that you had (or wanted) in common. For instance, I would have NEVER found The Samples if I hadn't found someone that loved Better Than Ezra the same way I did. They're not the same kind of band by any stretch, but it doesn't matter. I trusted that persons taste, not some shared cultural norm we were expected to share.

Music discovery through trust networks. It's better than collaborative filtering because it lets you have complete control over who is a "celebrity" in your world. The filtering happens because you find a nexus, and find things that are, mathematically speaking, close in vector space.

This is the next big addition to music stores. Apple has taken the wrong tack with Billboard Top 40 playlists that you can purchase. Whoever builds a trust network for taste is going to have their margins be a hell of a lot higher with small artists, which should let them give the bird to the big labels at some point in the future when the best part of their business becomes a music ecosystem where they provide the platform for. Taste is a fickle thing, and the labels have tried for decades (with varying degrees of success) to determine who and what should get a shot at the "big time". What Napster showed us was that there's a viable market for the small time and that it only thrives when "taste transaction" or "taste accumulation" costs decrease below some threshold well below the cost of getting into a Clear Channel rotation.

So how do we get to point b? My first inclination is to write an add-on to iTunes or a daemon that uses the iTunes database. iTunes is the first application to really make use of ID3 tags (and the metadata sections of other formats) to get a coherent view of your music collection. Generally speaking, this means that most people have pretty good metadata on at least one aspect of their files (title, artist, genre, or something else). Any of these aspects is enough to start making connections with. Best case, any such tool could query iTMS (or a similar music store service) to determine availability of the track (or tracks by the same artist, etc...). I guess what I'm proposing isn't peer-to-peer file sharing, it's peer-to-peer preference sharing with good-ole-capitalism as the logical endpoint. Another option is to VPN-enable this kind of tool and use iTunes builtin streaming capability to give such a tool "preview" capability. It's a frigging direct marketing nirvana: consumers don't really have to make their own decisions (they still get to rely on someone else to tell them what's good), and there's an approved point of purchase. It falls down, however, if iTMS (or whatever store backend) can't get enough of the requested content. Having smaller artists as a part of the ecosystem is the only thing that's going to make it work long-term.

Now if only I had spare time to implement this in...

Trains Rule

I've started taking the train down from the city to Redwood Shores where I work, and I'm hooked. One of my biggest frustrations about living in the Bay Area is that I was burning anywhere from 2 to 3 hours a day in a car just waiting...and waiting...and waiting.

Since CalTrain leaves from 4th and Market (right by a Muni stop), it's pretty simple for me to get there and catch the 8:07, which gives me an hour in the mornings to code or think or write. My company has a shuttle that goes from the Redwood City stop to our offices, which means that I get off the train and there's someone there immediately to drive me the 5-7 minutes to work. I'm at work by 9:30 most days, which is about what driving translates into for me. Going the other way, the 5:45 shuttle gets me to the station in time to catch an express to the city, meaning I'm home well before 7. Life is good, and I'm a LOT less stressed out.

The only downside so far is that it more tightly constrains my options in some respects, is somewhat expensive, and means I can't carpool with Jennifer to work any more. I'm going to have to look into the monthly pass option.

Trains! Who knew?

FM

Seems there's a new library in town: f(m)

Tom has obviously put a ton of work into this, and while we may often disagree on particulars, this looks great. If you're considering a library and think netWindows looks a bit too over-reaching, this might be an interesting place to start.

As modern and well thought-out as anything I've seen recently.

Things to Do

It seems there is an interesting set of trade-offs relating to living in San Francisco. On the one hand, I now spend about 3 more hours a day in a car than I did when living in Madison, and on the other, when I'm not in a car life here is much more exciting and engaging.

Since I've moved, I've:



People that come here and say it's nice to visit but they wouldn't want to live here are really missing out.

Informatica

What a week.

I took a job earlier this week with a company called Informatica and I'll be doing DHTML work for them on a full-time basis. It's going to be weird not having the word "security" on my business card any more, but this just feels like the right thing for me right now. Don't worry, I'll still work on security in my "spare" time, but I have a feeling is going to be weird for a bit. I start on Monday, so wish me luck, and if you're in the Bay Area, buy me a beer.

Life has also been interesting for the past couple of weeks as Jennifer recovers from her ankle surgery. After a scheduled re-casting on Monday, a nerve apparently got pinched and so yet another evening was spent in a doctor's office. Things seem to be better now, but it was a painful couple of days.

Oh! and my new contact info...yeah, that'd be useful:

Alex Russell
637 Fulton St.
San Francisco, CA 94120
(317) 514-8455
alex@netWindows.org

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