Low Tech, High Tech: An Old Convertible and a New Playlist Functionality

By Terry Calhoun

A few days ago I spent an entire day using older technologies and then learning about an interesting application of newer technologies. I spent most of the day being an official for the U.S. Amateur Disc Golf Championships, riding my bicycle up and down the slopes of the challenging Toboggan Course north of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I ended the day at an open house for All Media Guide (AMG), an Ann Arbor-based company and got to see some of their newest software, including Tapestry™, an intelligent play list selecting system that combines (a) the mass brain power of highly literate human music, video, and gaming experts with (b) a comprehensive database of content, quality, and other information about music, gaming, and video, and (c) some pretty nifty algorithms and a friendly interface.

Between the two events, I drove a 43-year old Chevy Corvair Monza convertible (red, of course) in heavy and fast freeway traffic, ran out of gas, and biked along the freeway with a gas can, empty one way and full the other.

On the Toboggan Course it felt like as technology-free an experience as possible. I was riding a bicycle of course, and carrying a digital camera and cell phone, but the course is like most – a majestic, beautiful outdoor walking experience. This one just happens to have a lot of uphill and downhill. I retired the bike after the second time that I succumbed to the temptation of riding down a 700-foot hill the brakes off and realized that (a) I could not resist doing it over and over and (b) that it was likely that I would injure myself on a third ride.

At the end of the day on the course, I received a call from my oldest daughter, Ruthy, asking me was I going to show up at her employer’s open house. Oops. It was 35 minutes away and started in 30 minutes.

So, I broke my own rule about taking my “new” red 1963 Chevy Corvair Monza on the freeway and discovered that it was okay. It kept right up with the best of the fast-moving traffic. Since I had the top down and my bike with me and the 43-year-old car d'es not have any safety devices except the seat belts that I just added (This is the car that made Ralph Nader’s career: Unsafe At Any Speed.) I decided that I might as well wear my helmet – which drew a few curious stares.

Zooming along, being very happy that my new acquisition could handle 70+ mph, I felt pretty cool until the motor died and I had to pull over. Since one of the things wrong with the car is that the fuel meter d'esn’t work, I had my fingers crossed that I had merely run out of gas – not destroyed the motor. That turned out to be the case!

Having once been an Eagle Scout, I was indeed prepared – with a bicycle and a small gasoline can. It was only a mile to the next exit, with a Shell station, and a mile back. I got to All Media Guide (AMG) in time to join one of the office tours.

Ruthy had been telling me wonderful things about AMG (One slogan: Get to know AMG…because AMG Knows Entertainment!) and it turned out to be a pretty interesting place. I already knew there was a collegial and interesting corporate culture, but I didn’t know about its products, which are mostly not aimed at consumers but at retailers.

AMG takes “product,” which is mostly CDs, and then data entry experts in various topical categories mine the CD for as much statistical and content information as they can, all of which g'es into a central database. In addition, the covers are scanned and archived. All of this information is likely to be the source of what you see when you use your CD player, listen to CDs in your car, or read identifying info about a CD or DVD on the screen of your iPod.

In one tiny space, samplings are taken from the CDs which end up being what you hear when you go to Borders bookstores and listen to samplings of CDs you are interested in purchasing. This one room is the source of all such samplings you can possibly find in commercial use. They’ve also got a room full of the best collection of video games imaginable: The “Library of Congress” of video games.

When you are using any device or Web site that permits you to listen to or purchase music, and the device gives you any kind of detailed information about that music or album, the chances are that the data you are viewing comes from AMG. AMG d'es a lot more, in the movie and gaming areas, but I am not all knowledgeable about its work in those areas.

One of the coolest things I saw was a demonstration by AMG staffer Dan Trenz of a program AMG is nearing the end of development of. It’s called Tapestry™ and uses computer algorithms with human-decided (AMG’s expert editorial staff) descriptors to either let you (a) create an 80-tune play list of tunes most like one you select as the originator of the play list, and (b) lets you choose from among a collection of various types of descriptors. (Head of the project is Zac Johnson.)

Watching the demonstration I learned one thing I didn’t know and found a mystery, which I hope I can solve the next time I get to play with Tapestry™. You can play with it, BTW, here. It’s not obviously linked to yet from other pages on the various AMG Web sites, so this is sort of an “insider” kind of access.

The thing I did not know was that Willie Nelson recorded an entire album of his tunes done in Reggae style. Really. How did I find this out?

One Tapestry™ feature permits you to check a box alongside a tune you already like and then click to get an 80-tune play list of tunes “most like” that tune. AMG is distinguished from competitors because the selection of that play list is based on tagging and commenting by experienced music editors instead of machines. Or, as AMG puts it: “actual human experts – who profile music based on over 6200 descriptive elements, not just on type. These profiles, based on styles, tones, themes, instruments, production elements, and structural attributes.”

Bob Marley and, of course, the play list generated was Reggae tunes. I had hoped to see Sinead O’Connor on the list but was instead shocked to see Willie Nelson listed near the top of the list. Most of us in the room said in unison, “Willie Nelson?” Sure enough, we clicked on the tune and listed to a sample and it was one of his own tunes set to Reggae. And when we clicked further, we found that it was part of an entire album: Countryman. We refreshed the play list several times but Sinead never showed up, to my disappointment because Throw Down Your Arms is one of my favorite albums.

Now, the mystery: Another feature of Tapestry™ lets the user select key terms and phrases, AMG calls them “styles, tones, themes, instruments, production elements and structural attributes.” So, if you click on “Party/Celebration” and “Late Night,” you would probably expect to eventually run across Gloria.

I was intrigued by the terms “Sarcastic,” “Melancholy,” and “Feelin’ Low,” so I asked our guide to click on those in various combinations, fully expecting to see my favorite artists, Leonard Cohen show up. But no matter how we combined them, none of his tunes were there.

How Cohen could not possibly show up with those terms is beyond my understanding. It remains a mystery, but it didn’t keep me from listening to Cohen as I wrote this piece.

I quite like this use of technology but without trying to use the technology to replace human expertise. One of my SCUP colleagues, Sunny Beach, is working toward a Masters in Information at the University of Michigan. His class project this fall for one of his classes is going to look at using technology in sort of this way, to use the technology to make more accessible human brain-powered planning expertise. I hope others are working on similar projects.

Kind of reminds me of one of my favorite sayings when embarking on a new project, “The technology is the easy part.” It’s the people part that is hardest, and which offers the most meaning.

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