March 2006

Apropos my previous entry on ZoomCloud, Paul Lamere posted a blog entry about a pretty cool little perl tool called Album Art Cloud (written by Andrew Hitchcock). This tool leverages Musicmobs’ open WS API to build a composite image of album cover art based on play counts of various songs. Here is mine (dynamic, browsable version available here):

Brooke's Album Cloud 2006.03.20

The cover art from albums listened to in greater frequency are displayed in a larger size, similar to how tag/word clouds display words with more frequent occurances in a larger font. In theory, this approach is a more interesting way to view the listening habits of a person or group of people. Instead of just looking at a bar chart or play count frequencies, one gets a visual map of album cover art, which one can mouse over to see play frequency, or click on to look at the album’s page on Musicmobs. What sites like Musicmobs, Last.FM, MusicStrands, etc. lack is good visualizations for their data. That’s why an Album Cloud is such a cool idea. It takes the a rich source of data and builds a great visual browsing interface.

As Andrew notes, there are some problems with actually implementing the cloud. Evidently, Musicmobs only has cover art (pulled from Amazon’s API) for a small percentage of albums tracked. If the Art Cloud program can’t find the album art for a particular album, it won’t visualize the frequencies for that album. This means that the cloud doesn’t accurately reflect play count. Compare, for example, my album art cloud above with a bar chart of my play counts on Last.FM:

Notice how some of my big favs of late are not present in the album cloud. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which I evidently listened to obsessively for a while, isn’t even in the Album Cloud. Ditto with Handsome Boy Modeling School. I am sort of comparing apples and oranges, since the Album Cloud is aggregated along albums, while the chart is at the artist level, but the point remains.

The problem here is that the cloud misrepresents a users’ listening habits — and more problematically, tends to skew the data towards more popular music. Popular music is more likely to be found on the Amazon WS API (depending on how the query is constructed), so less popular music, or music out on the long tail, gets overlooked.

There should be some way around having so much missing album art. Perhaps Musicmobs could straighten it out by refining their query against Amazon’s API. When we worked on Orpheus, we also used the Amazon API for retrieving cover art. Anecdotely, it seems like we were better at finding the art. But then again, we also used MusicBrainz to clean up users’ tags before submitting queries to Amazon. I’m not sure if Musicmobs does that.

A lack of album art on Amazon could become increasingly problematic as the music landscape changes. ‘Mash-ups’ generally don’t show up on albums, and aren’t sold on Amazon. Many smaller bands don’t sell their albums on Amazon, so the cover art isn’t there. As I said, if tools like this miss the long tail, they will become increasingly inaccurate. Perhaps an interim solution would be to just default to text when album art isn’t available. At least then the tool wouldn’t misrepresent the users’ listening habits.

Another problem with the Album Art Cloud is that is relies exclusively on play count to derive someone’s ‘favorite’ albums. There is other metadata that can help determine the users’ favorite music, such as ratings, repeat plays and appearance on multiple playlists. Since this data is available in the iTunes XML file, it should be available to Musicmobs as well, and thus to Andrew’s kickass tool. It would be nice to perhaps provide an option where users who rate their music (which I think is a relatively small pool of users) could include their ratings as part of the weighting scheme that determines the size of cover art. Thus, a song played only once, but rated a 5, could receive as large a rating as a song (or album) played 5 times with no rating. There are problems with this approach as well – Users have different ways of using the rating systems, and there is no consistent semantic interpretation for what the ratings actually mean. But it’s an idea. The other option would be to remove the semantic implication of ‘Favorite’ albums from the tool — instead calling it what it is — an Album Cloud based on frequency. This is what clouds typically represent anyway.

All in all, this is a cool little tool. Thanks Andrew!

On a related note, I just started using Musicmobs. It’s pretty cool. I especially like the playlist comparisons it provides, and the ‘similar listeners’ list. One can view other playlists or libraries that bare a resemblance to yours, see what songs you have, and which ones you don’t. In some circumstances you can even stream a section of a song that isn’t in your library.

Shark Attack!

Shark Attack!

Mad Shark Love

Mad Shark Love

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Relaxing at the Split

Relaxing at the Split

Moonlit Rendezvous Caye

Moonlit Rendezvous Caye

What I missed: Whale Sharks!

What I missed: Whale Sharks!

Just back from another excellent trip to Belize. I’m falling in love with this country, the people there, the barrier reef and all the amazing marine life living there. The Love Below. My trip was short — only a week — but I saw more of the country than my previous longer trip. It seems like I spent most of my time underwater. The first 2 days were too windy to snorkel or dive, but I managed some brief shore snorkeling even then. On the third day, I took a brief sailing trip out to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to visit some nurse sharks and blow a roll of film. Swam with the sharks, played with sting rays and free dived down to check out a moray eel hiding out in an underwater cave. The whole photo set from this roll is on my flickr account.

On the fourth day, my traveling partner and I embarked on a three day, two night sailing/snorkeling/fishing/camping excursion from Caye Caulker to Placencia. The full photo set is available on yahoo!, you’ll need to contact me for access.

We sailed south along the barrier reef, stopping to snorkel in the pristine caribbean waters alive with vibrant reefs and marine life. Along the way, we fished for barracudas and grilled them for dinner when we stopped for the night on the small cayes dotted along the reef. Our nights were illuminated by the full moon and windy with the Easter breeze. On the final day of the trip, a group of dolphins swam at the bow of our boat for a while. It was the first time I saw dolphins in the wild.

I snorkeled several barrier and atoll reefs. The most exciting thing I saw snorkeling was a group of spotted eagle rays off Tobacco Caye. They appeared out of the blue in very shallow waters and circled me for a bit until swimming off to deeper waters. They actually scared the shit out of me. I was snorkeling alone, I was in shallow and difficult waters, and their wing span was at least equivilent to mine. They circled as near as six feet, and I believe that was the first time a yelled ‘Holy Shit!’ into my snorkel.

We reached Placencia on the sixth day, and the following day I dived the north wall and the white hole along the continental shelf. Diving along the wall one can look one way and stare down into the 3000′ abyss of the Caribbean Sea, and the other way to inspect the cavernous coral shelf and wall. On these dives, I saw numerous lobsters, black groupers, moray eels, and a big old loggerhead turtle. Our dive master, Prince, had the wicked sea turtle move, and with it he made the turtle come our way and swim with us for a while.

What I missed was swimming with the Whale Sharks, who showed up along the reef as we reached Placencia. Normally, these giant fish come into shallower water around the full moon to feed on larvae of snappers and other sea life. There were Whale Shark dives available to me, but I was nervous enough about diving that I didn’t need to be swimming with the largest fish in the world, who can measure 60′ across. Next year, next year.

Belize is an extraordinary country, from so many perspectives. Culturally, politically, socially, environmentally, this must be one of the most diverse and unique places on the planet. I’d like to spend more time studying, experiencing and describing this place, but until, this post will have to suffice.

Yoshi's Stage, Ron Carter's Bass

Yoshi’s Stage, Ron Carter’s Bass

Ron Carter Live @ Yoshi's

Ron Carter Live @ Yoshi’s

The Ron Carter quartet (piano, drums, percussion, badass) is playing two sets a night through Sunday at Yoshi’s.

Last night was the opener. I saw the first set of the night, but I highly recommend going to the late show and making dinner reservations before hand. If you do this, you get to reserve the best seats without showing up early. I had to show up at 6 to reserve me seats — which were the best in the house. But Yoshi’s will take care of all of that for you if you go to the 10pm show and have dinner before. The sushi at Yoshi’s, by the way, is delicious.

I’ve been wanting to see Ron Carter for years. I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my bass idols. Among the giants I have missed include Mingus and Ray Brown. As a student of the bass, I’ve long admired Carter’s meticulous intonation, classy solos and brilliant choice of melody. On purely technical grounds, he is in scarce and highly accomplished company. Seeing him live was a treat I won’t soon forget.

Carter stands there, eyes closed and brow furrowed, effortlessly executing these incredible bass lines and melodies. The instrument is an extension of his mind. What he imagines, he plays. It was really beautiful.

Both of these photos were shot surreptitiously on my Razr during the encore. I wanted to get a better shot, but I didn’t want to disrupt the band, and I sure as hell didn’t want to irritate one of my musical heros.

This post is entirely self-referential, but I don’t care! In fact, I’ve added a new category to allow me to talk about my blog and categorize it appropriately. It’s called self-referential. Deal with it.

I’ve added a couple of new ‘features’ to my blog. The first thing I added was a cool little site icon that should show up in your browser’s address window next to my URL. It should also show up in your RSS reader if you re-subscribe to my blog.

I decided to do this, first because I was bored on Saturday afternoon after waking up late and missing a birthday party in the park, secondly because I wanted to figure out how to do it, and finally to meet the overwhelming demands of my reader base (jeannie), that I post a picture of myself to my website. I killed two birds with one stone by making my site icon a picture of me.

I found some helpful resources on how to create a site icon on Wikepedia’s Favicon entry. This was actually really easy to do for browsers, but more difficult for RSS readers. The reason is that RSS readers (or at least my rss reader) wants the standard “ICON” image type, with the standard name “favicon.ico,” in the root location of the website. I think this is a legacy issue, but it’s so not forward thinking to require a Windows machine and Windows software to create a Windows filetype for something to be published over the web on different platforms.

Now for the Tag Cloud. The folks over at TechCrunch profile Zoom Clouds, a service that builds a ‘tag cloud’ of the words in your site, and gives the user a code snippet to post the cloud to their site. I’m not totally clear how ZoomClouds is any different from Tag Cloud, but I think there is a little bit more in the way of customization.

The idea of a tag cloud is simple: build a frequency distribution of words used in a particular context (here the context is my blog); then display those words to visualize the frequency of their occurence. Generally, tags (or words) that appear more frequently are displayed in a bigger font, although I’ve seen other ways that frequencies are visualized, such as color.

Tag clouds are a useful way to display folksonomies — where users have tagged different documents (blog pages, pictures, music files, etc) with common descriptive words, for example on, Flickr, and MusicStrands. In those contexts, the clouds are very useful because there are many people contributing to the tag set — and at any aggregate level from a single picture to the site as a whole, one gets a sense of what the popular tags are, and what the content might be about. It’s a nice way to summarize folksonomy data.

But in the context of a single site, like mine, where the ‘cloud’ isn’t aggregating and weighting any tags, but rather just the words in the posts themselves, the cloud shouldn’t be called a Tag Cloud, but rather a Word Cloud. The WordCloud really just provides a quick summary of what the hell I’m talking about in my blog. Still a useful tool for people who might encounter a site and want to know whether the content is relevant to them or not.