Tuesday, March 25, 2008

John Horstman, the recommendation engine

Hey gang.  Since my last post was all about recommendations made by computers, I thought I'd balance that out with some recommendations made by humans - namely, me.  The following recommendations are my attempt to better your lives.

Now that it's not so cold that every moment spent outdoors is spent swearing, I've started taking walks and listening to podcasts.  This American Life, The Savage Lovecast and Meet the Press are all about an hour long and updated weekly.  A single episode episode of any of these shows makes for a perfect companion to your daily constitutional.

Forget the iTunes Store.  From here forward, there's no reason not to buy your digital music from Amazon instead.  It's cheaper, it has no DRM, and it comes in .mp3 format (as opposed to the .m4p files Apple sells, which can only be played with iPods/iTunes).

If you've always found online blog authoring tools to be too clunky, give Windows Live Writer a shot.  It's an offline tool that's helped me to rediscover the joy of blogging.  Adding links, pictures, tags, video, etc. has never been easier.  You can save drafts of your blogs, preview them before you post, and when they're ready to go you can publish directly to most blogging services with a single click.

Watch Helvetica.  It's a documentary about a font.  And I love it.

Listen to the new song I posted to the Tiger Stance MySpace page a week ago, Trees in Retrograde.  Here it is:

Read Lucy's blog.  Seriously!  It's so good!  She updates regularly, she gets plenty of comments from her fans, and most of the posts include a new comic.  Also, I'm in there sometimes.

Finally, I'm participating in Walk Now for Autism this May, so if you'd like to do a little bit of good in the world then I recommend that you make a donation on my page.

New puppet blog to come soon, featuring puppet me!

me 001

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Knowing you better than you know yourself

In his 2005 interview with Giant Robot magazine (.pdf posted here), the artist Ryan McGinness (whose work is featured at the beginning and end of this blog) talks about how the role of the curator is increasingly important as it becomes easier and easier for people to produce creative output.  McGinness says that technology has created many more writers (thanks to blogs), musicians (thanks to cheaper computers and recording software), etc., and that it is "more and more difficult to separate the extraordinary from the average."  That observation has always stuck with me because it struck me as an excellent observation, and it becomes especially interesting when extended beyond creative output to apply to information as a whole.

The strength of the curator lies in finding someone whose tastes you trust - in a way, someone whose tastes are similar to yours.  Many internet sites now provide us with automatic curators in the form of recommendation engines, the algorithms that try to figure out what you might like based on what you do like.  The interesting thing that distinguishes recommendation engines from curators is the absence of another human being's bias; recommendation engines make us curators for ourselves.

For example, the Amazon.com homepage will display products that you might be interested in purchasing based on the products you've looked at in the past.  Usually the connections are pretty obvious here: you'll see books by the same author, movies with the same actor, and so on.  A more sophisticated and impressive recommendation engine powers the internet radio site Pandora, which builds radio stations based around certain artists.  I created a Pixies radio station and Pandora started lining up songs that featured "electric rock instrumentation, punk influences, a vocal-centric aesthetic, minor key tonality, and electric guitar riffs."  A Talking Heads radio station played music with "basic rock song structures, subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping, a vocal-centric aesthetic, and major key tonality."  In each case, the recommendations are only about one step away from a personal preference you've demonstrated to the engine.

Many recommendation engines are perpetually being tweaked in a quest to find the best possible combination of algorithms to get inside your head.  In fact, Netflix is holding a contest to see if anyone can build a recommendation engine that is 10% better than their current engine at guessing how many stars you will give a movie.  The prize: $1,000,000.  The Netflix executives have said that they're not sure how to quantify the financial benefit of a better recommendation engine, but they're positive that it's worth more than a million dollars.

Recommendations don't just help us to find new products to spend money on (and hey, who doesn't need help with that?); they help us to find emotional fulfillment.  Dating sites are starting to evolve beyond simple search algorithms.  eHarmony prompts you to move beyond "traditional" dating by using their patented Compatibility Matching System to pre-screen partners across 29 dimensions.  Whether or not this system facilitates a more satisfied clientele than a rival dating site with a more primitive matching system - like, oh, I don't know, Adult Friend Finder - remains to be proven.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Attention span approaching zero

For those who haven't seen this yet on my tumblog, here's proof that my girlfriend is the best girlfriend in the world. In your face, chumps!

I remember reading something online a little while back about how Google is actually having a detrimental effect on people's memory skills. Because so much information is now available at all times and can be accessed with a negligible amount of effort, not only is there less incentive to retain information but the ways that we acquire that information are less thorough. These days, you can answer pretty much any bit of trivia that pops into your head - like, what's the name of that caveman-looking dude from Boogie Nights? - within 30 seconds of conceiving the thought.

Tyler & I talked about this yesterday and he said that he read something else about how the internet is actually making a number of us better learners and communicators. I think the reasoning there is that we have to clearly organize our thoughts in order to make the best use of a search algorithm, or to write a blog interesting enough that anyone will actually read it.

Um... I wish I had the links to back these up, but I couldn't find either of these articles via Google. So much for answering any question in 30 seconds.

Maybe the verdict is still out on technology's effect on memory, but I can say definitively that my attention span has been destroyed by my gadget lust. I can't read an article online, listen to a complete song, write an email, or even make it to the end of most YouTube videos without stopping at least 5 times to search for random shit, relevant or otherwise. At the beginning of my workday today, I caught myself listening to my iPod while reading a New York Times article on my phone and writing a 3 sentence email that took me almost 10 minutes to complete. Some would call that multitasking, but that description is a little too flattering.

In somewhat related news, today I created an account on twitter, which is a microblog that provides a service along the lines of the Facebook feed by allowing you to keep in touch with your friends in the most trivial and expedient way possible. Feel free to sign up and friend me!