Pandora’s Biases

Back in February I experimented with Pandora Radio and loved it…enough that I bought a subscription within a few days. It’s my background music now; I might never own an analog radio again.

For a while I ran around telling all my friends about how Pandora was the greatest thing! since sliced bread! you should try it! But I’ve stopped doing that, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work as well for other people…starting with my wife. I think I know why, and it reveals an interesting failure mode of all such systems.

Back in February I commented on my original post saying this:

From the reactions here I think it’s the case that some seeds and gene clusters are more productive than others under their similarity metric, and I seem to have picked one that’s at the good end of the distribution. I wonder why that is? I have a tentative guess that it’s because the stuff I like is complex and has lots of structure, so there are lots of traits sticking out of it.

There may also be a selection bias. The classification system was almost certainly designed by musicians and is certainly applied by musicians, so the traits it’s going to represent most effectively will be those that are foreground for people with analytical musical ears. And that describes me; a lot of the stuff I like could be truthfully tagged “only musicians listen to this”.

60 days later the feedback I’m getting seems to confirm this pretty strongly. How well Pandora will work for someone seems to correlate closely with the distance of the center of their tastes from “stuff musicians like”. And I think this highlights a likely failure mode of all recommender systems based in a taxonomy.

That is, if you try to do an equivalent of the Music Genome Project for creative content type X, your natural pool of evaluators is people who make content type X. That pool is much smaller than, and may have different tastes than, most of the the X Genome Project’s potential audience.

But there’s a subtler and perhaps more important effect – not different tastes, but different feature filters. It’s not just that musicians like somewhat different music than non-musicians do, it’s that they hear and retain things non-musicians miss. As a personal example, my memory of electric-guitar solos I’ve heard more than once or twice is so precise that it includes pick-scrape noises and unintentional quarter-tone off-notes. I can still recall my bemusement when I finally figured how unusual that is – that most people have trouble hearing such things even when they’re cued to the timing and told what to listen for.

Thus: I think an in-built limitation of Pandora is that it will work well if you have feature filters like a musician’s. Actually, it’s worse than that – because my wife is a musician, but doesn’t hear music in the hyper-analytical way I do, and Pandora doesn’t work well for her. So, maybe, the key group is “musicians listening with their left ears”. Yes, this actually matters – it’s been shown in the lab that left-ear listening activates the analytical left brain. It makes sense; if you’re hiring people to analyze music, you’re likely to find unusually analytical musicians.

The larger point here is that all recommender systems dependent on hiring evaluators are likely to have the same problem. Even if you work at getting a broad selection of taste in the evaluators (say, by making an extra effort to hire people who understand country & western, or psychotronic films, or 19th-century penny dreadfuls) you’re likely to end up with a pool that has feature filters different from the general population – probably more analytical, finer-grained, pickier. This will leave your classification system with subtle biases, possibly ill-matched to the general population.

54 thoughts on “Pandora’s Biases

  1. You’re assuming that the recommenders must be hired by a central company or even specialize in a subject though. There’s no reason they can’t be random people on the internet and the recommendation software algorithmically matches the music they’ve flagged as enjoyable to the people with similar tastes. A simple recommendation system like Digg does all this very crudely, where all votes for a link are simply added up, but the next step is to only show you links that the software thinks you have a high probability of enjoying, based on which links you clicked on in the past. Point being, we’re very early in the game and you may be right about this flaw in a current recommendation system, Pandora, but the tech is evolving and will be a big part of how we use the internet.

  2. I found it impossible to specify any subset of artists or songs in any electronic music genre that didn’t devolve into an endless stream of obnixiously formulaic trance music. I’m not sure if this is a result of a small pool of songs in these genres available through Pandora or a disconnect between their taxonomy and my tastes.

  3. Bummer….I just wanna rock….

    ROCK…bah…duh na nuh nuh…duh na nuh nuh…I WANNA ROCK

  4. Kind of like how I always enjoyed reading the Hugo awards more than the Nebulas.

  5. I’m not a musician (well, I played the clarinet in school) and Pandora has been pretty good to me. I have a gothic/industrial station that I’ve been able to tune fairly well over the last couple of years (although it throws some real ringers at me once in a while — Hall and Oates? Really?), and an ’80s New Wave/New Romantic station that’s also coming along pretty well.

    All of which is not really “stuff musicians like”. It’s clear that there’s a database selection algorithm going on that’s keying on more than just common “genetic” factors: pretty much every song on my goth station has the same factors listed, and yet some songs turn up way more often than others, and whole subgenres turn up only after I’ve added a new seed or thumbs-upped a song.

    What I’d like to see in the get info pane is more than just the common factors; things like “you got this song 10% because of your seed of Band A, 15% because of your seed of Band B, and 75% because you thumbs-upped song X by band Y which has an 85% genetic match.” This would let me be a lot smarter in tuning — I’d *know* that I was getting all those Swedish goth metal bands because I thumbs-upped a song by Inkubus Sukkubus, instead of having to guess.

  6. Does this have something to do with why I mostly can’t stand what passes for SF these days, with exceptions like Mike Williams’ stuff, and Weber’s?

  7. pretty much every song on my goth station has the same factors listed, and yet some songs turn up way more often than others, and whole subgenres turn up only after I’ve added a new seed or thumbs-upped a song.

    I’m seeing exactly the same thing here. But while the songs are picked by an algorithm, the factors themselves used to search them are definitely decided by musicians. So I don’t think Pandora is picking music that “musicians like” but it’s categorizing music in the way a musician would. But esr’s right in that non-musicians don’t necessarily categorize music in the same way that musicians do. Non-musicians often categorize music the way radio stations and music stores do.

    An example from my early playing around might be that if you seed with “Pink Floyd” it might turn up Wish You Were Here, which Pandora seems to automatically determine as representative of that band — not bad, it is a rather popular Floyd tune. It then will present you with other music that has the same traits as that song — melodic, lots of guitar, somewhat mellow mood.

    The next song Pandora presented was The Beatles’ George Harrison song While My Guitar Gently Weeps from the White Album. Definitely has the same genetics as the first song, but whether someone picking Pink Floyd would expect that or not depends on their point of view.

    Certainly someone looking for classic rock got what they wanted. But some Pink Floyd songs are also played on album rock stations, sometimes on on alternative stations, and sometimes among “goth” tunes even, which are really different genres. And if you try to seed with another Pink Floyd, like Money (from Dark Side of the Moon) or any song from The Wall, it won’t find it. Maybe they just don’t have those songs, or, along the lines of what esr is saying, I think the songs that they picked from the Floyd’s vast discography are the ones that musicians like: WYWH is certainly one of them, and most of the other songs that Pandora does find do seem to be along that vein, rather than along some of the Floyd’s more rockish or funkish sounds.

    (I’m using Pink Floyd as an example because they have a vast and diverse discography, more so than many other groups.)

    Anyway, others who like Pink Floyd may also like Metallica or Inkubus Sukkubus or Guns n Roses. But no amount of seeding with Pink Floyd will produce those groups. You have to seed with those groups specificially if you want that.

    Does that make sense or have I rattled on senselessly?

  8. I think your analysis is probably correct, to some degree. It makes me think about art and makes me want to rant a bit about my usual theme of the arrogant patricians disdaining the ignorant plebeians. Surely your analysis reveals the fact that the producers of art apparently don’t really know what the consumers of art really want? If producers are not able to analyze their own art into terms and taxonomies correspondent with those of the consumers then that tells me they don’t know what makes their art appealing to consumers. (Please excuse the gross broad brushstrokes.)

    Of course, in a sense often the patricians don’t care. There is a certain degree of push-pull. Producers, or at least the ones who think of themselves as artists, don’t want to be lead around by the plebeian consumers. Their art is “high” not “populist.” It is part of an elitism that is destructive in so many different areas of life. But it is also a genetic thing I think. Everyone wants to be considered an expert at something, and to be an expert almost assumes you have to disdain the non expert.

    Is some art good and some art bad? Certainly. But what are the metrics to distinguish? Does the prediction profile based on the metrics correspond to the actual profile of what people find appealing? If “Oops I did it again” is disdained by the experts but loved by the plebs, is the fault with inadequacies of the experts’ metrics or is it on the poor taste of the plebs?

    Is the artist the servant of the masses, or is it the other way around?

  9. >Surely your analysis reveals the fact that the producers of art apparently don’t really know what the consumers of art really want?

    Sometimes this is true. But I think the issue about feature filters is orthogonal to it. That is, I think you can have artists who understand the direction of popular taste but are somewhat hindered in attempting to meet it by the fact that they have different perceptual filters and agendas.

    I’m thinking of a specific historical example, actually: the transition jazz bands underwent in the 1940s from pumping out dance tunes to making music meant to be received as art by people sitting down in a concert setting.

  10. esr Says:
    > Sometimes this is true. But I think the issue about feature filters is orthogonal to it.

    Actually, I think the issues are largely the same. The reason why artists don’t know what people want is because they do not think or hear in the same way the music consumer does. Should they? Is it their job to learn how we plebs perceive? Or is it their job to change how we perceive?

    esr Says:
    April 16th, 2010 at 10:31 am

    > they have different perceptual filters and agendas.

    Yes indeed, and there is nothing wrong with having one’s own agenda. I guess I would simply caution that there is a huge difference between masturbation and a loving relationship.

    > transition jazz bands

    Strangely I was thinking of jazz too. They seem to me to be the very archetype of what I am talking about. Jazz is pleasant background music, suitable for elevators and bars where conversation is the goal. However, there is a strong thread within jazz of music for music’s sake. Moreover, there is a strong thread of elitism amongst jazz consumers, where they “get it” unlike the plebs (like me) who think it is muzak. It is a common thing in art — self indulgent producers, and groupies who adore the producers, and pretend they are part of the one true cult who actually “gets” it. It reminds me very much of the fat cats who look at a big red dot on canvas, and get out their checkbooks, while sniggering at the fools who can’t appreciate the beautiful stitching on the Emperor’s new clothes.

    Of course, there are many exceptions to this, including all jazz lovers on who read this blog :->

  11. You know I was thinking I should clarify my view on Jazz a little. I understand the enjoyment of musicians playing together, feeding off each other, and the deep interaction involved there. I also understand the voyeuristic enjoyment of watching such a love fest, and appreciation of the skill involved. All these are worthy endeavors themselves. So I don’t suggest it is without any merit at all. I also think that red dots on canvas can be attractive. So I don’t want to leave the impression that I think jazz is without merit. It is. I suppose there are different levels at which you can interact with art. For me, and I suspect many others, art is the ability to stimulate the emotions rather than then mind, (though the mind plays an important role in this.) I think though that the nature of what I have just described holds many people outside the circle. It requires too much of a commitment to enjoy it at the level the musicians are enjoying it (and the groupies too.) To each his own, I guess. Entertainment of this sort requires too much work to be attractive to me.

  12. The thing I don’t like about the entire ‘Pandora-process’ is that it assumes a more or less narrow musical agenda.

    What about people who go like Bethena (Scott Joplin), La Femme Argent (Air), Oh Happy Day (Traditional), Crazy (Patsy Cline), Enigmatic Ocean (Jean Luc Ponty), Leyenda (Andreas Segovia), 5th Symp (Beethoven), Every Time You Say Goodbye (Allison Kraus), Wheel in the Sky (Journey), Make Me Smile (Chicago), Toccata and Fugue (Bach), Rivers of Babylon (Melodians), Traditional Incan Pipe Music, etc.

    There is too much good music of all types out there to limit oneself.

  13. @biobob: Those are all good songs. (Patsy Cline is one of my all-time favorite vocalists) Have you tried seeding a Pandora station with them?

    While I have similar diverse tastes, usually I’m in the mood for one or two related genres/subgenres at a time.

  14. Jessica boxer’s discussion points out (to me) the sad decline in people participating in life. What we have is a few decades where more and more people are able to appreciate fine art as consumers, and are undoubtedly enriched by the diversity of art experiences that are now possible. At the same time those decades have seen the intensity of the art experience washed out to a faded bunch of pastels. This is because the wide variety encourages a ‘wine-tasting’ approach to music and art; we take a little bit, swish it around, pontificate about its qualities and then spit it out. We also expect things packaged for us: this is in all areas of our lives, from food, to services like laundry, to our tastes in education and entertainment.

    Art permeates our lives. Anything more than the most absolutely-stripped-down functional product has art in it: linoleum with patterns is art. However, I’m not making linoleum and neither are you. A hundred years ago, we probably handmade at least the majority of the items we used in our daily lives. Even if we traded for some of them. We decided what kind of decoration our handicrafts would have, we were artisans, if not artists.

    Likewise, while for the most part only the rich and nobility would learn music theory and compelx instruments, every villager would have had some experience at making music and dancing, even if only clapping/stomping a rhythm and singing along. Music was participatory.

    Once we became wealthy enough to aspire to education for everyone, we included music and art as being important. But somehow we lost track of the importance of integrating it into our lives; it became a topic outisde ourselves that we study rather than live fully.

    The experience of being a musician is not inaccessible to orindary people. But sadly people are choosing not to access it.

  15. # thebastidge Says:
    > The experience of being a musician is not inaccessible to
    > orindary people. But sadly people are choosing not to access it.

    People do things that are valuable to them. Perhaps people just don’t care about art. Perhaps they care about other things that are more valuable to them. And who are you or I to call that poor judgment. I should also say that those who long for the halcyon days of old, when art was good, ignore the important point that we only remember the good art from those times, not the 99% of it that was terrible. For every Bach there were a thousand Britney Spears, for every Renoir there were a thousand… well a thousand people as artistically handicapped as me.

    I might add to thebastidge that if you long for the days when you made your own linoleum you also are choosing to omit that fact that with all the joys of artistry you also get poverty, early death, no books, no travel, no dental anesthetic, and (god forbid) no Internet.

    FWIW, despite my general disdain for “art” I should say that there is probably nothing in the history of the world that has made creative expression, and the ability to share the fruits of that expression so abundant as has the computer and the Internet.

    Or to put it another way, William Shockley did more for art that the Italian Renaissance.

  16. I just tried to get Pandora to search for Fela Kuti (and Femi Kuti, and afrojazz) and came up blank.

    Rather than ‘music for musicians’, this seems like ‘music for white boyz’ (from Philly).

    in other news (and completely off-topic), did you see that the SEC is proposing Python as a language to describe asset-backed securities?

    http://jrvarma.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-sec-and-the-python/

    (Jeff: “I oughta slap your fat face…”)


    NEW YORK—In a stunning reversal of their long-stated reluctance to take it, members of heavy-metal band Twisted Sister announced Monday that, after 24 years of fervent refusal, they are now willing to take it. “I acknowledge that we promised not to take it anymore, but things change. The world is a different place today, and with that in mind, we would like to go on record as saying that, starting right now, we are going to take it,” read a statement released by the band’s lead singer, Dee Snider. “To clarify, we would still prefer not to take it, but as of now, taking it is an option that we would be open to. That is all.” Bassist Mark “the Animal” Mendoza also stated that, in regards to what he wants to do with his life, he no longer solely wants to rock, but would instead prefer doing other things, such as raising a family and working as a claims adjuster in Rye, NY
    (From The Onion 18 months ago.)

  17. I’m thinking of a specific historical example, actually: the transition jazz bands underwent in the 1940s from pumping out dance tunes to making music meant to be received as art by people sitting down in a concert setting.

    You **have** to be kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding. You *are* kidding, right?

    Jazz bands in the 40s were playing bebop. The ‘dance tunes’ were ‘swing’, a style popularized in the 30s.

    Swing had been the soundtrack of World War II, a way to vent the angst and to exorcize fear. It was also a way to capture stability in a time of high instability. At the end of the war, the psychology reverted: swing became a bad memory, and it suddenly sounded anachronistic.

    The psychological revolution was particularly felt by blacks. Before the war, they had tasted success and wealth for the first time in their history. They had discovered that there was money to be made by entertaining whites. By the end of the war, that capitalist excitement had subsided: blacks wanted to be respected, not only employed. They wanted cultural emancipation to proceed in parallel with material emancipation. (The vast majority, of course, got neither).

    Whether it was a coincidence or not, bebop took off in the years of a nation-wide recording ban that affected instrumental jazz. A fight between the union of musicians (the AFM) and the record labels caused a two year ban (from august 1942 till november 1944) on all recordings, an event that certainly did not help the swing orchestras.

    The rapid decline of the big bands favored the cause of the dissidents within jazz music who were preaching against the commercial sell-out of the big bands. These isolated intellectuals were offering a musical message that did not depend on the taste of the masses. They marked a renewal of the thematic material, away from the (white) pop themes favored by swing orchestras, back to the blues themes of the past and towards original compositions that better reflected the zeitgeist. They marked a regression towards the small club and the small ensemble, and from the big band to the small combo. They also marked a progression towards a more personal, intimate and heartfelt form of music. Bebop was a more “private” form of expression. Bebop was a music to listen to, as opposed to dance to.

    Bebop mavericks like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were influenced by the preceding generation’s adventurous soloists, such as pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines, tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. You can think of these guys as ‘jazz hackers’, if it helps.

    By 1950, a second wave of bebop musicians (e.g. Clifford Brown, Sonny Stitt, and Fats Navarro) began to smooth the early bebop. Instead of using jagged phrasing to create rhythmic interest, these musicians constructed their improvised lines out of long strings of eighth notes, and simply accented certain notes in the line to create rhythmic variety.

  18. > Entertainment of this sort requires too much work to be attractive to me.

    and thus shows like, “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and politicians like Sarah Palin are successful.

  19. >You **have** to be kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding. You *are* kidding, right?

    No. You just told a more elaborated version of the story I was thinking about; why should I have been kidding?

  20. “… making music meant to be received as art by people sitting down in a concert setting.”

    you could not have gotten it more wrong.

  21. Jake,

    Doesn’t this: Bebop was a music to listen to, as opposed to dance to.

    Mean the same thing as this: making music meant to be received as art by people sitting down in a concert setting.

    So what part was wrong?

    Yours,
    Tom

  22. My best guess is that there is confusion over the word “concert”.

  23. >My best guess is that there is confusion over the word “concert”.

    Yes. This was a reasonable error on Jake’s part; a lot of people, when you say “concert”, think formal dress at Carnegie Hall. I had a broader definition in mind and failed to specify.

  24. As a Swing dancer, let me just say that the transition away from big band, danceable music is deeply saddening to me ;)

    Back on the topic of Pandora, I’ve noticed that it does a pretty bad job of building stations for a specific tempo. This makes it nearly useless for creating dance (as in Swing or Ballroom) stations. I’ve tried for a while to create a Quickstep station, and while it gets the “Big Band, trumpet section” part, it still picks songs that are way too slow for a Quickstep, even though I’ve “Thumbs Downed” all of the slower songs I’ve come across.

    This is in line with your main point, that the attributes are chosen by musicians; and while the exact tempo of a song might be interesting but not terribly important to a musician, it is crucial to a dancer.

    Still, I have found a whole lot of good songs through Pandora, so it certainly could be worse.

  25. > Yes. This was a reasonable error on Jake’s part; a lot of people, when you say “concert”, think formal dress at Carnegie Hall. I had a broader definition in mind and failed to specify.

    Or, conceivably a reasonable word choice error error on your part. I visualized formal dress at Carnegie Hall, too, rather than a jazz club at 18th and Vine. BTW, the Kansas City Youth Symphony held a gala featuring musically successful graduates in a jazz hall at 18th and Vine which my family was priviledged to attend. Plenty of formal dress, and a lovely setting.

    Lots of people make art as children, and some even carry if forward into adulthood. I’m very pleased that my girls’s violin teacher has encouraged them both to both improvise and compose. But Jessica’s point isn’t confined to the snootiness of artistes. Remember the contempt legions of rock and roll fans had for disco? What about all the people who hated country? Yet a friend of ours who was into jazz and the blues switched to country. She noted that it was easier to find clubs, easier to find dance partners and it was all based on blues riffs anyway. It’s all just more tribal behavior.

    Yours,
    Tom

  26. The advent of be-bop jazz in the 1940s changed this basic tenet. The beat became rhythmically more complex as musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie explored more improvisation and less melody. The overall result was that jazz music became something to listen to rather than something to dance to in a social environment. Other reasons for the demise of ballrooms include the smaller size of be-bop combos as opposed to the orchestras of swing music, and a new federal tax on dance floors. In “No Cover Charge,” Robert Sylvester elaborates on the devastating effect that this 20% tax had:

    For some reason, this tax was so rigid that it penalizes a place with entertainment while exempting a place which offers only music. Thus the jazz joints merely dispensed with their dance floors and offered only music.

  27. @Tom

    What makes hated country past tense. That is by far the most contemptible noise ever put out by any cretin like excuse for a human the worlds ever know.

    No, but seriously, I hate it that bad. Not for any motivation other then its utterly revolting in the same way being covered in insects would be. Not at all tied to any other genre of music.

  28. > Yes. This was a reasonable error on Jake’s part; a lot of people, when you say “concert”, think formal dress at Carnegie Hall. I had a broader definition in mind and failed to specify.

    Well OK, but wrong.

    Bebop was about creation (of abstract musical art), not about production of same for other’s consumption.
    Very similar things were going on in the art world, actually.

    > Lots of people make art as children, and some even carry if forward into adulthood.

    Exactly. Art for art’s sake.

    not unlike hacking.

  29. Bebop was about creation (of abstract musical art), not about production of same for other’s consumption. Very similar things were going on in the art world, actually.

    You seem to be implying that bebop artists didn’t play for audiences or at least weren’t interested in doing so. While in the early days, bepop was rather unpopular compared to the more popular and conventional swing music of the day, Dizzy Gillespie in particular has been noted for his efforts to popularize the style. In any respect, bebop clearly won since its rythmic styles and unusual harmonies can still be seen in popular music today.

  30. Does everything necessarily distill down to Sarah Palin? How exactly are people able to make her relevant in a thread about music?

    Concerning tempo: I’ve noticed that too. I’ll be going along, coding or whatever, and all of a sudden everything slows down on Pandora. WTF? This isn’t the roller rink on a Saturday afternoon in 1983. I don’t need to “slow it down.”

    You know what would be neat? The ability to tweak the genetic process by putting priorities on different traits. So you’d be able to rank multi-part harmony above minor key tonailty or what have you.

  31. # Josh Says:
    > I hate it that bad.

    Anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, and suffering is the way to the dark side.

    Argument have you not. Mmmmh.

  32. >You seem to be implying that bebop artists didn’t play for audiences or at least weren’t interested in doing so.

    Artists like Picasso or Thelonious Monk managed to imagine an art beyond the present, seeing beyond their contemporaries and the traditions of the past, striving for something new.

    As for Palin, (Brian), consider the views of our host. (http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=481)

  33. # Kenneth Freeman Says:
    > That said, Lady Gaga is to pop as Sarah Palin is to politics.

    You think Lady Gaga she is that good? Y’know, in this great country of ours, we support our troops overseas. When you can see Russia from your kitchen, you appreciate the great people of this nation, and if drill baby drill, we will put lipstick on that pig…

    Regardless of what you think of Palin, it is a fact that she has been good for politics. She stirs people up and gets them engaged. She gets under the skin of the political elite and the media, and that is always a good thing. However, I am becoming somewhat less enamored with her, I am concerned that she can’t seem to get beyond the vacuous fluff. However, in fairness to her, vacuous fluff is the currency of politics.

    Having said that, I also like the candy floss from Lady Gaga. There is nothing wrong with candy floss, as long as you don’t think it is nutritious, and you brush your teeth afterwards. So perhaps your irony is lost on me.

  34. Considering that most of the detractors of both Palin and Gaga believe so many proven false things about them, I can see the comparison.

    Unlike the bulk of pop “musicians”, Gaga is actually a musician for real. There’s video of her in the pre-Gaga days playing actual music in clubs and everything. As much as it pains me to admit it (being against the whole sugar-coated pop cruft) I like Lady Gaga. I don’t WANT to, but I can’t help myself.

    And the bulk of things people think Palin said were actually said by Tina Fey. And I know several people who voted for Obama because they think Palin said she could see Russia from her porch. If they knew half the things Biden ACTUALLY said, maybe they’d have voted differently :)

  35. Lady Gaga == vacuous fluff; so the original poster Lady Gaga:popular musc as Sarah Palin:politics is accurate.

    As for Sarah Palin, her and Todd Palin’s connections to the Alaskan Independence Party were the likely reason that many voters felt that Palin was too extreme to a heartbeat away from the presidency.

  36. Jake Fischer Says:
    > Artists like Picasso or Thelonious Monk

    I am not familiar with Monk, however, for me, a tasteless rube, I find Picasso to be the very archetype of the sort of art I am talking about. Frankly it does nothing for me. The only emotional reaction I have is “this is meaningless garbage.” It is the very essence of “clever” art, that you have to be “in the know” to understand. Why is that woman’s nose sticking out of her ear? Why does that group of figures have square eyes and no mouths, and look like something a kindergartner would draw? Why are there no dead people in this picture of bomb victims? I am sure the reaction of the Picasso lover is “you are just a rube who doesn’t get it.” Which is exactly the point. It is the very essence of elitism and navel gazing, and offers no value to society other than a feeling of superiority on the part of the Bree and Beaujolais set. Of course people can waste their money and time however they like, and if snootiness makes you happy, go nuts I say. However, I think the Emperor’ big fat ugly butt is in full view, even if no-one else does.

  37. >>> Does everything necessarily distill down to Sarah Palin? How exactly are people able to make her relevant in a thread about music?

    Yes, everything does boil down to Sarah Palin. She truly scares the libtards out there, that is why they cannot shut up about her. She is living inside their heads, rent free.

    You could be in a thread discussing string theory and somehow she would get brought up.

    BTW, the thing about the Independence party is pure BS, that has been refuted.

  38. >As much as it pains me to admit it (being against the whole sugar-coated pop cruft) I like Lady Gaga. I don’t WANT to, but I can’t help myself.

    Yes. What she chooses to do seems like a waste of talent, but the talent compels my grudging respect. It shines through even when she’s at her most preposterous.

  39. As for Palin, (Brian), consider the views of our host.

    There’s an old joke goes: An optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist fears that this is the case.

    The 2008 U.S. politics version might go: A conservative believes that Sarah Palin reflects the views of mainstream America. A liberal fears that this is the case.

  40. # Jeff Read Says:
    > A conservative believes that Sarah Palin reflects the
    > views of mainstream America. A liberal fears that this is the case.

    I think liberals need to worry about this, because Sarah Palin is far closer to the mainstream of America the the President. This is probably true on just about every major issue of the day with the exception of abortion, on which they are both far out of the mainstream.

    ESR says: Indeed. Nothing since the election has changed my evaluation that Palin nails the actual political center in the U.S. almost exactly.

  41. Lady Gaga: I dunno about what she did before, but the stuff that made her famous is musically uninteresting. She’s a low-rent Alison Goldfrapp, with dashes of Pink and drag queen to taste. As social satire, something of which she has been accused, her work is handily eclipsed by “Weird Al” Yankovic (seriously a musical genius; the breakdowns to “Your Horoscope for Today” and “Hardware Store” still bring tears to my eyes).

    That’s all I have to say about that girl. Giving her much more attention would only be fulfilling the goals of her publicists.

  42. I find Picasso to be the very archetype of the sort of art I am talking about.

    Philip Larkin felt similarly, here and here. Pound, Picasso, Parker – from then on it was connoisseurs only.

  43. Picasso did some splendid art.

    It’s just not the art you think of when you hear the name “Picasso”.

  44. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material…

    That’s Larkin, again, and seems to match what I said (above) quite well. The artists simply gave up trying to be ‘popular’, (writing in C++ for Windows), and started hacking art (poetry, jazz, poetry, …)

    Lets take a different look.

    Paul Graham and painting, anyone?
    Richard Gabriel writes poetry.

    Technical innovation is often discovered by chance; that is, by engaging in work, play or experiments around related phenomena. One of the best languages available for this type of experimentation is Lisp. Well written Lisp code is poetry – it is expressive in the same way that the art from Pound, Picasso and Parker is.

    Some here (I’m looking at you, Jessica) view computer language as they would a human language – a tool, a means to an end, not the end itself. They view software as an end-product, but don’t particularly like to view the code, unless they have to. And if they have to, the more obvious the code the better. They are much more impressed by the genius of the finished product rather than the expressive beauty of its implementation. In particular, I’m thinking back several weeks to the ‘moving zeros’ problem that esr ‘solved’ by calling sort(), and of which Jessica complained about my use of pointers.

    I bet that the vast majority of the world’s programmers, want an “easy” language, and “easy” solutions, not a highly expressive, poetic language like Lisp, or (gasp) a solution that makes them think because it uses pointers.

    In Paul Graham’s terminology, they want Blub. Contrary to Graham’s implication that this says something about their IQ, I believe the reason they want Blub is that they don’t get all that excited about something as mundane [to them] as a computer programming language or implementation.

    As a reminder:

    So I got this critique from our host:

    Performance-challenged but easy to verify beats the crap out of fast but potentially buggy for one very simple reason: machine time continually gets cheaper, while programmer time continually gets more expensive.

    Only, it doesn’t. The days of ever-increasing clockspeed are over. (Have you heard?) Sure, we’re getting more transistors, but they’re going to multiple functional units (multicore), not to ever deeper pipelines and register coloring tricks in support of cranking the clock higher.

    And Eric’s quote (just above) shows that Eric (and programmers like him) are much more concerned with having it be easy to verify that a solution is correct, rather than having it be correct *and* elegant (“Run, its potentially buggy!”), or correct *and* fast(er), or even all three.

    In a similar way, the vast majority of the world’s consumers of ‘art’ (paintings, poetry, music, etc) want ‘easy’ art. They don’t want to have to think about it. Complex forms appear to be only noise, and they don’t want to have to think about picking the structure from the ‘noise’.

    They want ‘easy’ politicians, too. Thus the appeal of Palin and her anti-intellectual screed. Palin rails against people who dare to think. What thinking person could support her?

    And let there be no doubt, Palin is an anti-intellectual. How has Palin brought up her own kids? Her eldest son is a high-school drop-out. Her eldest daughter has had, so far as one can tell from press reports, very uneven attendance in high school, and no plans for college. Her other daughters seem to spend a lot of time traveling the country with their mom at tax-payers’ expense. I’ve seen them at several rallies with the Palins this fall. Are they not in school?

    The least one can say is that none of her children seems to have been brought up thinking that college is something to aspire toward. And her then-new son-in-law dropped out of high school as well.

    Sarah Palin’s own record of several colleges over several years – ending with a degree in sports journalism – tells you a lot. So does her interest in policing the Wasilla library as mayor and using the town’s money for a sports stadium. She cut funding for the town museum and opposed building a new library; as does her amazing ignorance about the Constitution.

    She is, in my judgment, the final rebuke to what Buckley tried to do for conservatism. She is burying it as an intellectual tradition and returning it to the pre-Buckley era. With the eager encouragement of a now Buckley-free National Review. Yes, the karma is overpowering. This is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

    If this represents ‘the center of America’, then the country is circling down the drain.

  45. Jake Fischer Says:
    > That’s Larkin, again, and seems to match what I said
    > (above) quite well. The artists simply gave up trying
    > to be ‘popular’,

    Aside from the swipe at C++ and Windows, I tend to agree. As Jeff Read pointed out, some of Picasso is quite attractive. For example, I have a print of his painting “First Communion” in my apartment. It is quite an attractive painting, and conveys very strongly the purity and innocence of childhood. I like it for its own intrinsic merit, though I also have an ironic view of the painting that was most likely not in Picasso’s mind. Namely the purity and innocence of childhood placed in sharp contrast to the corruption, moral depravity and intellectual vacuity of the Roman Catholic Church. Which is to say innocent and purity and the corruption of innocent and purity in spectacular counterpoint. However, I think most people who know about “art” would not be a particular fan of this work, since it is, in some respects, lacking in technical merit. FWIW, I think some of the work from his blue period is less ugly, but it is so melancholy that I don’t find it appealing to have around me.

    > Technical innovation is often discovered by chance;

    That is true. It is also true that innovation takes place when one fails to wash up one’s lab equipment, but I don’t think that is a good research strategy either. Fact is that most technical innovation takes place with hard, dedicated work.

    > Some here (I’m looking at you, Jessica) view computer
    > language as they would a human language – a tool, a
    > means to an end, not the end itself.

    Nonsense. On the contrary, I think the hierarchy of art is inverted. High art is supposed to be painting and sculpture, low art is prose. But I think words form the highest form of art, especially the well written novel. Of course there is garbage in every field, but a novel can achieve the goals of art — emotional stimulation in an intellectual setting — far more effectively that a painting. I enjoy some poetry, but it suffers from the same navel gazing as “high art.” The best “poetry” is set in a well written novel. (And here what I mean by poetry is: conveying meaning by the structure of the language beyond the literal semantics of the words.)

    > They view software as an end-product, but don’t particularly
    > like to view the code, unless they have to.

    Again, this is plain nonsense. I very much appreciate beautifully written code, not just intrinsically but also from a utilitarian point of view. The difference is that we have very different views of what constitutes beauty in that regard. For example, I think lisp is intrinsically visually ugly with all those brackets everywhere. If you want functional then I suggest you try Haskell which is much more attractive (and also, unlike Lisp, actually functionally pure.)

    However, I find Haskell too dense. I find C derived languages much more attractive. In particular, I think some of the more advanced structures in C# are very attractive, in much the same way the tools and pipe architecture is attractive in Unix.

    Further, I find it attractive to find simple solutions to specifications that are inadequate. The spec you provided was deeply flawed, and the code revealed those deep flaws. That is, in my opinion, beautiful. But, perhaps, a little humiliating for you.

    Your Palin comments are also nonsense, but I have written enough already. Perhaps I will get back to them later.

  46. Art is either communication or masturbation.

    If it is masturbation please do it in private.

    If it is communication, then you need to choose an audience.

    Human beings are computationally limited. They have to prioritize. You can overload them. You waste their time making them task switch too much. You can make them really angry with a distraction they don’t dare ignore.

    Back in a college bull session I declared that the proletariate only cares about titties and beer. I was being elitist, then. I still hold the same opinion, but I have come to believe that they have their priorities straight. In any case, those are their priorities, and you have no right to mess with them.

    A lawyer is a hired gun. Some hired guns are picky about who they work for. Some are not. Either way, when they are out of work they tend to invent work for themselves, like anyone else. Sometimes that work is actually valuable. Sometimes it is not.

    Our government is run mostly by lawyers. Most of them aren’t very good lawyers. In any case, their occupation makes them comfortable with complex rules that bug the hell out of the rest of us. This is very similar to the way programmers are comfortable with computers when everyone else wants an appliance.

    The center of America is profoundly unhappy with the unnecessary complication of their lives. It is a complication they cannot remove by pointing a shotgun at it.

    “We’re meddlers. They don’t like to be meddled with.”

  47. Jessica:

    “Perhaps people just don’t care about art. Perhaps they care about other things that are more valuable to them. And who are you or I to call that poor judgment.”

    I don’t recall that I made a value judgement about their choices, other than to vaguely regret something peripheral: that people have become passive about receiving life rather than actively engaging in it. People’s attitudes toward art is a reflection of their attitude toward life, in many cases.

    ” should also say that those who long for the halcyon days of old, when art was good, ignore the important point that we only remember the good art from those times, not the 99% of it that was terrible. “

    I’m not a Golden-Ager. I highly recommend the modern age over any that have preceded, we’re in as close as it gets to a Golden Age right now, but it’s nowhere close to perfect. To the extent I would ever fantasize about being cast into the past to make my life, it would be to create a bubble of advanced civilization distinct from the actual events of the past. But it doesn’t matter whether the art of the age is “good” or not. People find it valuable because it is better than none at all. It doesn’t have to amaze future generations to be worthwhile. Indeed what we have now, Britney and all, is better than not having it. I personally think that most people would be happier by engaging more, but I’m not out to force them into it.

    “I might add to thebastidge that if you long for the days when you made your own linoleum you also are choosing to omit that fact that with all the joys of artistry you also get poverty, early death, no books, no travel, no dental anesthetic, and (god forbid) no Internet.”

    If you’re looking for time travel into the past, perhaps. But there’s absolutely nothing that prevents each and every one of us from being an artisan. Our society is more than rich enough to provide us the leisure time for such pursuits. In many cases, one can financially and emotionally profit from being a maker, without any reduction in income from other sources. Just because one is accustomed to spending free time in front of a television, doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best use of one’s time. Clearly we can all be fairly objectively sure of this, but I believe that it’s also a subjective truth for the majority of people. It’s a cultural value which doesn’t have a strong pressure to change (at least at the moment. We’ll see how Obama’s ‘stimulus’ works out) but that doesn’t mean it’s a good culutural value. For example, the Mayans had cultural values which led to massive human sacrifice. Probably not the best cultural practice either, but it lasted for quite some time.

    I’m not one to coddle emotionally unstable “artists” and coo over their “genius”. My favourite musicians all earn a living with day jobs- they’re friends in my home town. I think that we’ve reached a point where art could and should be performed mostly by dilettantes, by amateurs (in the best, original sense of the word). You’d better be a genius if you expect to make your living solely by the entertainment you provide for others.

    I’m looking very seriously into the possibility of building my own home, passive solar, all that. Regardless of how it is eventually built, I will have a great deal of personal input into the design. I understand that other people may choose to accept what random chance and the choices of others may throw at them. I choose not to do so.

  48. I am about as musically untalented as possible. I still love Pandora. In particular, I discovered that I love the artist Jeffrey Lewis and the genre called antifolk. When I force my friends to listen to it, they say that his music isn’t really music, that it’s just spoken word with a guitar strumming in the background.

  49. I’m not a Golden-Ager. I highly recommend the modern age over any that have preceded, we’re in as close as it gets to a Golden Age right now, but it’s nowhere close to perfect.

    I’d like to agree with you. But when I hear the music of today compared with that of just 20 years ago (and that doesn’t even compare with the dawn of rock, the big bands, or Tin Pan Alley); when I see the Archie comics of the 40s and 50s having been drawn by amazing cartoonists, with a studious eye for detail, form, balance and proportion; and I see the Archie comics of today which are, literally, drawn by teenage fangirls from DeviantArt, I say shoot. Give me the technology and convenience of today combined with the class of the past.

    (Pay attention, folks. This is why geeks love Apple products. Their current design inspiration is 1960s Braun appliances.)

  50. “I’d like to agree with you. But when I hear the music of today compared with that of just 20 years ago (and that doesn’t even compare with the dawn of rock, the big bands, or Tin Pan Alley)”

    Largely a matter of taste and acclimation. Some of it, as I said, the difference between being a passive receiver vs an active participant. When the majority actively participates, it raises the talent pool (executiona and complexity) for everyone, players and listeners alike.

    Personally, comics are a medium which doesn’t do much for me. I was a cartoon watcher as a child, but not so much these days. Your Archie comics were highly specific to the cultural context of the time period you cite. They’re not likley to attract the best artists today.

  51. Looking back to the class of the past we forget Sturgeon’s Law.

    I listened to Benny Goodman on the way in to work. In his day there were multiple swing bands in every city, and often at least one in large towns. Most of them weren’t very good. You were lucky if they were even competent musicians.

    We see farther because we stand upon the shoulders of giants. Never mind all the runts at their feet.

  52. I listened to Benny Goodman on the way in to work. In his day there were multiple swing bands in every city, and often at least one in large towns. Most of them weren’t very good. You were lucky if they were even competent musicians.

    But they aspired to be like Benny Goodman.

    Nowadays you’d be lucky if the musicians musicians aspire to be like are competent.

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