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iPhone Apps – Pandora vs. Last.fm vs. iTunes

San Jose Taiko rocking the main stage Since the release of the iPhone 2.0 firmware and the App Store, I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. At some point I’ll get around to a list of recommended apps but for now I just want to compare two music listening / online radio applications: Last.fm and Pandora.

You do, of course, have many more options – the App Store Music category has about 30 apps listed, many of them designed to help you enjoy and discover new tunes. And you always have the built-in iPod functionality of the phone which syncs with iTunes on the desktop. But Last.fm and Pandora have been around for a while as very impressive web apps so those were the first two I decided to take a look at. They have very different approaches to recommending music with lots of data and cool algorithms.


Pandora is based on the Music Genome Project – basically, their system breaks down each song into a series of attributes. For example, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody has “demanding vocal performances, mild rhythmic syncopation, heavy use of vocal harmonies, a prominent rhythm piano part,” among other features. Give Pandora a song or musician and it will create a radio station of similar music. It’s really that simple.

As each song comes up you can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down and you can skip a few songs per station per hour. The iPhone interface displays the album art front and center with a button in the upper-right corner to show you why the system chose the song.

I’ve played with Pandora off and on for a while and my experience is that it does much better with stations created around one or two bands or songs than stations built on large lists of music you enjoy. Add 10 rock bands to your “Road trip with Steve 2008” station and if one of them has folk influences you’re bound to get some sleepy folk in there now and again. Give it just one band and it can get some amazing results – check out my Gorillaz station, for example.

The drawback to Pandora is that it only has very rudimentary data collection and social features. You can find other people listing to the same song on the website but user profiles are pretty sparse, and there’s no groups, message boards, etc. But if you just want to listen, and don’t want to bother with all that other stuff, Pandora provides a pretty great experience.


Last.fm builds radios stations for you and makes recommendations based on the listening data of thousands of other listeners, whether they’re using the Last.fm site, the mobile app, or a scrobbler plugin in their desktop MP3 player software. You can also listen to stations based around a single musician or band, but Last.fm gives you more options and better results the more you listen and participate in the social features of the site. For example, take a look at the listing for Bohemian Rhapsody – you can see top listeners, how users have tagged the song, similar songs, comments, message board posts, etc.

The user interface is actually quite similar to Pandora’s, with options to note that you love or hate a song, a skip button, album art, etc. You can see a bio of the band, similar artists, and upcoming events, which is cool in theory but I haven’t really used.

I’m a long time user of Last.fm from back in the Audioscrobbler days (check out the Geek Music group) and you definitely get more out of it the more you listen. You don’t really have to participate that much, just letting Last.fm know what you’re listing to improves recommendations and radio plays. My favorite thing about it is all the stats it collects. You can see which bands and songs you listen to most often and find out the most popular bands in Sri Lanka.

Compared to Pandora, though, the recommendations aren’t always as interesting… not bad, but I find myself pleasantly surprised more often while listening to Pandora. For comparison, listen to the Gorillaz similar artists radio station.

iPod + iTunes

You can, of course, skip online radio altogether and just use the built-in iPod functionality along with iTunes on the desktop.  There’s a lot to be said for going this route – the interface is nice and usable, the iPhone holds a decent amount of music, and iTunes collects of the same listening data that makes Last.fm so cool.  Also, it will work no matter how conjested the local network is and doesn’t drain the battery nearly as quickly.

But you miss out on all the social networking features and it’s a lot harder to discover new music.  So I think of it more as a back-up plan…  guaranteed access to some of my personal music library.

The Winner

Actually, there’s no need to pick one as the winner – they’re all available for use on your computer and your iPhone.

Have a favorite?  Share your experience in the comments section.

The Urge to Deletion: Is Wikipedia is making molehills out of mountains?

Black Mountain Wikipedia is great.  Even now, it’s still kind of amazing that such a huge body of knowledge has been organized ad-hoc by volunteers, most of whom have never met in person. Most social software systems would die for this level of collaboration.

That said, has anyone else gone to a random Wikipedia article from, say, search results and ended up a little depressed?  It seems like every other article I find lately has a big warning label at the top – this article contains too much trivia, this article has too many fictional references for an encyclopedic and academic approach of this topic, and worst one of all: this article has been marked for deletion.

I understand that it must be very difficult to wrangle all the millions of contributions into a consistently high-quality encyclopedia.  Just dealing with all the spam and abuse must be an enormous undertaking, even when distributed among thousands of good samaritans.  But one of the things that was great about Wikipedia was the breadth of coverage and the depth on some particulars, even if it was excessive to the point of comedy.

But a brief look at the list of articles marked for deletion the last few days illustrates my point.

1. Horse Ranch Mountain. You know there’s something wrong when a mountain doesn’t meet the notability requirement.   Here’s the comment opening the deletion on the talk page:

In what way is Horse Ranch Mountain notable? I am quite familiar with the area, and I cannot think of any way in which it is notable. Please convince me otherwise.

I would think it’s notable because it is a mass of millions of tons of rock and earth sticking out of the ground.  One a less sarcastic note, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looked at a map, spotted a feature I’ve never heard of, then looked it up online.  Even if it’s not accessible it’s probably helpful to have a reference noting that it’s the highest point in Zion, measured at X meters tall, etc.

2.  List of redundant expressions. I understand the argument that an encyclopedia is not a trivia game or a book of lists, but these sorts of pages used to be one of my favorite features of Wikipedia.  Exhaustive lists of palindromes, English words of Polish origin, etc., give examples, context, and can help connect concepts in language.  Also, the use or omission of redundancy is an important stylistic consideration when writing – it can be used for everything from emphasis to characterization.

3.  Hindu literature. Delete the article on Hindu literature?  Granted, the article needs work.  But isn’t it worrying how the marked for deletion pages are filled with subject matter from outside the U.S. and maybe Europe?

I know the standard answer to complaints like these is that if you feel so strongly, you should participate in the debates and push for things not to be deleted.  Judging by the talk pages I wonder if I would be drowned out by all the “I’m a history major and this is a programming term, never heard of it, not notable” comments.  I’ll admit my contribution to Wikipedia is limited to random spelling and grammar corrections that were obvious enough that even I noticed them, so I could be wrong.  I just feel like some of what made Wikipedia so addictive is slowly being drained away.

Agree?  Think I’m wrong?  Leave me a comment below.  See, it’s kind of like a talk page, but even with consensus you can’t edit my article.   Until the next WordPress exploit comes out.

Why have a website, why create a blog, why Twitter?

Golden Gate Bridge from the northMy esteemed colleague Beah just started blogging, and opened her blog with a very important question – Why Blog?  I remember people asking a similar question years ago when I registered this domain – why would you want to have a website with your name on it?  Almost the same question has come to my mind recently when playing around with Twitter.

So, why blog?  With all the hundreds of thousands of blogs on the web you might think there’s no need to ask this question.  One of the best things about social science is asking questions about things that everyone takes for granted.  Unfortunately the “science” part of social science is a bit too time-consuming to finish up on a Sunday-evening blog post, so instead we’ll look at a few sites of friends and colleagues and maybe collect some thoughts on what motivates people to blog.

First, why do I blog here?  I try to keep this blog relatively professional, posting mostly on topics that I encounter in my work, in my academic research, and in my side projects (the standard disclaimer, as always, applies).  One of my motivations was sharing some of the research done for classwork – it seemed a shame to write up a report, turn it in to a professor, and then let it gather dust in some corner of my hard drive.  My undergrad degree was in journalism and I do miss writing, so that’s another motive.  Also, having been through some rough patches in my career during the dot-com downturn, I thought blogging might help me establish a bit of a professional brand.  I have my URL on my resume and I would hope that any company looking to hire me would get an idea that I’m knowledgeable and interested in relevant areas.

But I’m not a very random sample, so let’s look at a few other blogs and try to appreciate why they write.  I think I can place them into a few rough categories:

Personal takes on professional / technical interests:

This is largely where my blog falls.  Common post topics will include things like “how to get around an annoying issue with some software/programming language,” “very excited about the new device from Apple,” “report from a conference,” and “very disappointed with the new device from Apple.”

Public journaling to keep in touch with friends and family:

I’ve done this in the past as well – blogs taking the place of those old-fashioned mass emails you used to send out freshman year of college.  If you went to college in the ancient days before blogs and Facebook.  This is a place for both epic travelogues and saved IM conversations filled with inside jokes.

Sharing interests and reviews:

This category runs the gamut from folks who just want to show their friends a funny Youtube video to blogging a season of a TV show to reviewers writing prolifically about a very obscure musical genre.

Artistic or literary expression:

Self-publishing has opened the doors for artists and writers, both amateur and professional, to share their work with whatever audience they find.  This can run from virtual serial galleries shows to community-driven commentary and learning.

Of course these all overlap, and some blogs cover all the bases.  See KooKoo for KokoPuffs for an example

So do we answer our question with a plethora of distinct motives for blogging?  Not necessarily.  There’s one theme that runs throughout all of the above – these are all social activities.  Ultimately blogging is human interaction.

Oh, and that other question – why use Twitter?  No clue.

Got a reason why you use Twitter?  Are you a co-worker angry at me for misconstruing your blog?  Please let me know in the comments below.