Find songs by tapping

There’s a song that’s driving you crazy. You keep humming it, but you can’t remember the name of it. If you have reasonably good pitch, you can use the Parsons code to work it out on the Musipedia site. All you need to do is say whether each note was higher or lower than the preceding one and you’ve got a pretty good shot at finding what you want in their database. I wrote about Musipedia last year, but now there’s a site that does it one better.

The Parsons code strips music down to ups and downs and omits the rhythm as redundant to the basic problem of identifying the tune. But suppose you do it the other way around… omit the pitch and pay attention only to the rhythm. Is the pitch also redundant in this sense? Song Search by Tapping is a site that tests this idea. Their tagline is “Search for music by tapping the rhythm of the song’s melody.” I tried it with something that I thought they might have in the database and has a distinctive rhythm: “She was a fast ma-CHINE, she kept her motor CLEAN.” No problem: it returned in triumph with “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC.

Greasemonkey anticipates; Gmail delivers

This is a sign of the times: Google’s Gmail has finally gotten around to putting a “delete” button in their interface. Up to this time, they had deliberately made it hard to delete email because they were trying to encourage a new philosophical approach to email: don’t delete it, archive it. Disk space is cheap, and you may want it again someday. It’s a bold and provocative idea, but the thing is, sometimes people really want to delete stuff. Philosophical enlightenment aside, why should it be difficult to do that? Gmail got it wrong, lots of people complained, and finally Gmail gave people the feature they wanted.

But that’s not the interesting part. That’s an old story about the power relationship between the software vendor and the software user: beg for feature, maybe get feature. What’s interesting is that a third party plug-in called Greasemonkey has been providing the Gmail delete button for months before Google got around to it. In other words, software vendors are losing control of their products. As Paul Kedrosky says over at Infectious Greed

Mind you, I use so many Gmail-altering Greasemonkey scripts that I’m hard-pressed to remember what features Gmail really has or doesn’t have any more.

Or, as Jon Udell says in a post about a longed-for feature in Flickr that he simply built for himself: “In the old days, it’d be a feature request… In the new era of do-it-yourself user-interface composition, we expect to work with interfaces.”

British Library Online

I’ve got some bad news for you. The British Library has a special online exhibit called
Turning the Pages, and it’s designed to suck hours out of your day.

Honestly, they’re really onto something with this exhibit. Here’s a problem that famous libraries have with their Beautiful Old Books: all the really good stuff, they don’t want to let you touch it. Sure, they might trust David McCullough on a good day, assuming he filled out all the paperwork ahead of time. But give you an old book and you’ll only sneeze on it, paw at it with chocolate-smeared fingers, and then perhaps set it afire. No, it’s best kept far, far away from the likes of you. And if they are so kind as to display an old treasure like the Lindisfarne Gospels or a Gutenberg Bible, it will be under glass, and you’ll only see two facing pages of the entire book.

What you want to do is hold that book and caress it, dwell on each page, and slowly and lovingly turn the pages. This will never happen. Unless, of course, you are willing to accept an online digital compromise called Turning the Pages. This online exhibit does a wonderful job of letting you flip through twelve different historical books, including one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. All the books are spectacular, but I particularly like seeing a facsimile of Leonardo’s notebook, because his work is so often excerpted. How many times have you seen the same picture of the guy with four arms or the child in the womb, and always without any sense of context? I want to know what he doodled on the page before and the page after. I want to see the text close enough to work out his mysterious left-handed mirror script. The British Library exhibit lets you do that. The only missing pieces are the dusty inky smell and tactile pleasure of fingers on vellum. Maybe we’ll get that one day, too. (seen on tingilinde)

Comment stalactites

Conversations want to happen, and so they will happen just about anywhere people come in contact. As a case in point, the comment threads on this blog sometimes take on a life of their own. I’ve had a few spectacularly long comment threads. The one that’s been cooking most recently is the Goth-related thread over here (if you’re unfamiliar with the whole Goth cultural phenomenon, here’s the gospel according to Wikipedia).

Nearly five years ago, I posted something about a mildly funny Goth parody site that has since disappeared (Am I GOTH or NOT). Because it had the word Goth in it, people started finding it via Google. Because it had a comment field, people started initiating conversations with provocative comments. Whenever you post a comment, it’s human nature to check back and see how people react to what you said. If someone else happens to reply before you come back, BANG, you’ve got a conversation rolling. Then you get a search engine pile-on effect, and more and more people arrive. It’s a self-feeding system; the conversation thread grows like a stalactite from the ceiling of the blog.

Here’s a (stalactite) histogram of when comments appeared on the Goth thread

There are different kinds of comment stalactites. The most annoying kind is the parasitic stalactite, like this Goth thread. It really has nothing to do with your post, your site, or anything you’ve ever said. It’s just an opportunity to loiter and chat. The Goth folk were well-behaved by and large, but I eventually got tired of supporting an endless tedious chat room. Other stalactites are more welcome. This thread on the Tsar Bomba (the largest nuclear weapon ever exploded) is long, but it’s on topic and people are bringing new information to it. God bless them. Another example is the me-too/me-three variety, like this thread about performer Ferenc Cako’s sand paintings. People are really impressed (watch it and you will be too), and they’re all just saying “wow” one after another. Fine by me.

The last stalactite example I have on my site is the one that convinced me this Elvish writing thing was a force to be reckoned with. I mentioned that I do Elvish writing, and people piled on asking for me to write their names, despite the fact that there was no evidence I would do it based on their comment. These comments were on topic, but basically misguided and growing without bound. But I was happy for the attention, and I did learn that there was a market for Elvish. Failing that stalactite, I never would’ve known.

Help me print

This is an unvarnished cry for help. I use a PC running the latest Windows XP. Ten feet away from me, my wife uses a PC running the latest Windows XP. Both of our computers are connected to the net through an old (but solid) LinkSys router. The printer (an HP PSC 2110 All-in-One) is plugged by USB directly into my computer. It’s not a network printer. And here is the punchline:

My wife can’t print from her machine.

She prints by mailing documents to her Gmail account, rolling her chair ten feet across the floor to my computer, getting into her Gmail account and printing. Oh, and I forgot an important part of the process: she curses too. She curses because, despite the fact that her husband works in the software business, and despite the fact that she complains about this printing problem regularly, she still cannot print from her computer.

Windows claims to give you the ability to set up a home network for people in my situation. I have tried many times and failed. No matter how many times I follow the steps (and consult various helpy sites), the machines never see each other. The problem appears to be the virus/firewall software. I actually switched from Norton to ZoneAlarm thinking that might help, but it didn’t. I could keep troubleshooting down that avenue, but I’m sick of it. I’m curious to hear if there is some other solution out there that lets you print to a remote printer. I don’t care if the bits get routed through a leaky server at web 2.0 startup in Kalamazoo. A workable hack beats my current situation hands down. Any suggestions?

Synthesizing life

The Scientist web site has gone live with a new look, and as a result they’re making the entire site freely available for a few days. The bad news is that they will snatch this boon back under their subscriber walls in a few days. The good news is that their current cover story happens to be one of my favorite topics: synthetic biology. There is a well-written central survey article (Is This Life?) as well as some satellite pieces written by luminaries in the field. Drew Endy gives a good practical explanation of synthetic biology as a useful engineering tool, while Craig Venter and pals from his eponymous institute give a remarkably brief and lucid statement of the situation. They lead with this: “Synthetic biologists view the genome and the cell’s operating system.” And near the end, they say

One of our initial goals is to build a minimal cell. What is the least number of gene functions for a viable cell, in a defined laboratory environment? The question is of fundamental importance because practically every cell must have those minimal functions. When we fully understand this minimal set it should be possible to build a computer model that accurately predicts cellular behavior.

I’m used to engineers talking like this and being accused by responsible biologists of oversimplifying things, so it’s very appealing to hear biologists like Venter using this kind of language. The scenario he’s describing won’t happen fast, but it will happen, and it’s one of our best avenues forward. The scent of big game is in the air, and the hounds are off. Dozens of labs around the world are working the problem of minimal or synthetic life from as many different angles. It’s hard to say when something practical will come of it, but exciting science is churning out at a furious rate. Maybe we need to dangle one of those DARPA Grand Challenge carrots. If we work it right, we can arrange it so those crazy post-docs don’t get any sleep at all.

Self-contradictory words

janus.jpgThe old Roman patron saint of January was Janus, the god of thresholds and transitions. In honor of Old Twoface, today’s special word is “contranym.” A contranym, sometimes called a “Janus word,” can take on either of two opposite meanings. One of the nicest examples is “fast,” a word with the nautical connotation of being fixed in place. Curiously, fasten and hasten both mean “make fast.”

I was reminded of contranyms when Matt sent me an email about the word quiddity which means both “essence” and “hairsplitting distinction.” Why would so many words evolve in two different directions at once? In some cases, it’s not much of a mystery. The word “root” can be used in the sense of rooting something out (removing it) or of growing roots (becoming established). But clearly these are just two ways of looking at the same thing. Two specific phrases have been eroded down to an ambiguous noun residue. And if you are skimming, are you removing something or keeping something? It depends on your opinion of the thing being skimmed. Consider that you and your dog have very different views of the word “fixed.” One of you thinks something was improved; the other is likely to take exception.

Other contranyms, like cleave (split) vs. cleave (cling), have separate etymologies that resulted in coincident spelling. The most interesting ones, like fast and temper, are more mysterious. Why should so many words (bolt, bound, stand) connote both motion and inaction? But as I read about these contentious beasts, the thing that interested me the most was the great variety of synonyms for the word contranym itself. The list goes on and on: contranym, contronym, autoantonym, self-antonym, antagonym, antilogy, Janus word, and (most thrillingly) enantiodrome. It is only fitting then that we add our own version to this list: how about poke-yourself-in-the-eye-onym? Or paradoxonym?

Finally, here’s one more nice long list to end with. Now go waste some time. Some more time, I mean.

Getting Wikipedia right

This is sort of a follow-up to my Wiki Effect post a few days ago, but I happened across this like-minded commentary by David Weinberger entitled Why the media can’t get Wikipedia right. I agree with what he has to say, and his Anti-Executive Summary at the top of the article made me laugh out loud.

Anti-Executive Summary
Things this piece does not say.

  1. Wikipedia is always right
  2. Wikipedia will asymptotically achieve a point of total rightness
  3. Wikipedia is the only source anyone should consult
  4. Wikipedia is impervious to criticism
  5. Wikipedia is better than science, sex and scientific sex
  6. Wikipedia is totally new and there’s never been anything like it
  7. Anyone who criticizes Wikipedia is a doody head
  8. Jimmy Wales is G-d.

It’s clear he’s had the same argument many times in the past.

Mmmmm… scientific sex.

Distributing the future

Happy New Year!

When a one year ends and another begins, pundits feel compelled to opine about the next big thing. I almost always find these predictions tedious and off base. Worse even than this is the speculative fiction that imagines what it will be to wake up ten years in the future, floating cars, police state and all. In an effort to be sensational, these stories and predictions extrapolate in silly directions.

I much prefer articles that talk about small but interesting things that are happening right now. This is often the best we can do when it comes to predicting the near future. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very well distributed.” Tim O’Reilly (Mr. Web 2.0) is such a fan of this quote that he has made it something of a personal mantra.

I’ve taken to reading Michael Arrington’s blog TechCrunch lately, and I liked his approach to the year-end summation. He wrote a piece called Web 2.0 Companies I Couldn’t Live Without. I love to hear articulate early adopters describe the products that change the way they work. Arrington’s list isn’t that surprising, but it did, for example, convince me to go back and try NetVibes again. My personal list of web services that I wouldn’t want to give up includes Bloglines, the todo list manager tasktoy, and the excellent LibraryThing.

Jon Udell goes one step farther than Arrington. He noticed that the stuff he got excited about in 2004 often made a big splash in 2005, so he compiled a list of promising technology from 2005 that might just hit the big time in 2006. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but this is the best way I know to make an intelligent guess. Find what’s working right now and distribute it liberally. Something just might stick.