MonthJanuary 2009

What is Microsoft’s Songsmith like? Enterprise software, that’s what

There’s a powerful meme going around, especially on Twitter, pointing to examples where people have taken the vocal tracks of famous songs and then got Songsmith to write the music, which is what it’s designed to do.

So you get Stairway to Heaven, Roxanne, and a whole stack here by Dan.

Lord, it’s horrible. Which led Justin Williams to ask

WTF was Microsoft thinking with Songsmith? Here’s it does White Wedding by Billy Idol. Just unbelievable

Yes, what was Microsoft thinking? Well, let’s start. Someone thought “Apple does a music app.” (Garageband, below.) “We should do a music app. Apple’s one lets you create stuff. We should make it easier. We should write the backing – we’re smart. OK. Tunes follow a structure.” And then “what people sing follows a vague structure.” And then “we can fit the tune around the singing.” And then “what they sing becomes the structure.”

It’s enormously clever; but as the examples all show, utterly stupid. Songsmith has no notion of what a great melody, nor a great accompaniment is; indeed, it doesn’t understand melody, only the idea of progression through a structure. What the person is doing becomes essentially irrelevant; they’re just an input. Listen to enough of these ..creations and you start to notice a certain sameness to them that isn’t there in the originals (obviously). Everything is hammered flat. The surprising harmonies of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Not got those. The plangent arpeggios of Stairway to Heaven? Nope. The buzzsaw guitar of Jonny Greenwood, determined to break up Thom Yorke’s sweet-sounding chorus to Creep? No idea what you mean.

And to answer Williams’s question, what was Microsoft thinking? It was thinking what it always thinks. Reduce the human element to an input, put it in a box and make everything exist only in that box. Remove the space for human creativity that hasn’t been thought of already by the programmers. Think inside the box.

It’s pure enterprise (as in, big company) thinking, applied to one of the art forms that has been with humans for millennia. No wonder people are astonished and can’t stop pinging it around the intarwebs (for it has to be said, Songsmith is getting the most fantastic publicity – you’d think it was an Apple product).

It’s intriguing. Apple has Garageband, which is a tabula rasa, the original blank slate, that offers you fills and guitar and piano twiddles, but you have to do the creative act of putting the song together. (I’ve always thought it makes it too hard to create a long piece; why can’t I just say “I’d like to have something four minutes and 30 seconds long with this drum track, set it up please”?). Even pros use Garageband.

Songsmith takes away the blank slate. In its place it… tells you what it thinks you’re thinking. It is scary. I’d love to know what Microsoft’s engineers really thought before they released it into the wild.

And, of course, whether anyone will release a song “written” by Songsmith. Something tells me not.

If I had one piece of advice to a journalist starting out now, it would be: learn to code

Yes, it would. Seriously, if you’re doing one of those courses where they’re making you learn shorthand and so on, take some time to learn to code.

OK, you might think that I’m saying this because I’m in technology. Not at all. All sorts of fields of journalism – basically, any where you’re going to have to keep on top of a lot of data that will be updated, regularly or not – will benefit from being able to analyse and dig into that data, and present it in interesting ways.

Let’s be clear that I’m not saying “code” as in “get deep into C++ or Java”, though I guess you could. (After all, it might give you something to fall back on if the journalism doesn’t work out…) I mean it in the sense of having a nodding acquaintance with methods of programming, and perhaps a few languages, so that when something comes along where you’ll need, say, to transform data from one form to another, you can. Or where you need to make your own life easier by automating some process or other.

Me? I taught myself BASIC all those years ago (even wrote a completely useless game in it, though it amused some folk at school). Then a long pause, then was taught Z-80 assembler at university, and then a bit of Cobol in my first job, and then a long pause before I bumped along in HTML (of course), Applescript, SQL, and PHP. I’ve tried to teach myself Cocoa and failed pretty miserably; I’ve not got any C, so it’s all a bit mysterious to me. Perl I’ve read a book of and realised I’d need a lot longer; Javascript ditto. (I can read Javascript as though it was a foreign language.) CSS, which I think is pretty much a coding language (it tells web pages what to do) I can muddle about in. (I tweaked the usual CSS of WordPress to produce this page.)

And what good has it been? The Applescript I use all the time, to automate all sorts of things – at work, we save hours and hours every week not having to do the text formatting of the Letters and Blogs section, the Ask Jack section, and the Newsbytes section, because I wrote Applescripts that automate the formatting. Similarly, for every story, I run a script before we start subbing that removes double spaces, turns “percent ” into “% ” (programming question: why is the space is there?) and decapitalises “Internet” (Guardian style is “internet”) except at the start of sentences.

And I can hack my own blog, and the Free Our Data blog, because I understand PHP (and CSS a bit – it took me ages figuring out how to make the FOD blog lay out a particular way in a single post; one line of CSS). And I can set up and run a MySQL database on my own machine, and store the links for all the Technology sections I’ve edited, for use to find who has linked to us which then goes into the week’s letters. Which then gets formatted by me…

But there’s a huge hinterland of stuff to be done with data that I haven’t even touched on. I haven’t taken the time to understand the Google Maps API yet; I think it’s probably the most powerful API that a journalist can presently use (which does mean I should take more time; Lord, give me a couple more hours per day, huh?), just because news becomes so much more relevant when it becomes local. Even just being able to visualise – as Fraser Speirs suggested – what it would be like if you had a militant group in the UK sending mortars across the borders as Hamas does in Israel. (I’m not taking sides. I’m showing that you need to understand people.)

My coding? Not that great. Your coding? Could be a lot better. Great coding? You’d be able to knock up something like the Guardian BNP map without a second thought. And the journalism then flows on from that, because you can see so much more clearly. If you’re tracking the data, you’ll be able to see when something changes, when something unusual happens.

None of which is saying you shouldn’t be talking to your sources, and questioning what you’re told, and trying to find other means of finding stuff out from people. But nowadays, computers are a sort of primary source too. You’ve got to learn to interrogate them effectively – and quote them meaningfully – too.

Clay Shirky: scarily clever

Clay Shirky is scarily clever. This is a guy who in 1995 found the internet and pretty quickly wrote an article titled “The Price of Information has fallen and it can’t get up“:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

And why?

Remember the law of supply and demand? While there are many economic conditions which defy this old saw, its basic precepts are worth remembering. Prices rise when demand outstrips supply, even if both are falling. Prices fall when supply outstrips demand, even if both are rising. This second state describes the network perfectly, since the Web is growing even faster than the number of new users.

I wish I could have foreseen that in 1995. Or perhaps I just would have gone and hidden under a desk. The implications for content businesses are scary.

And now we come to a more recent interview, with the Columbia Journalism Review – that’s the full text there, so set yourself some time aside.

It touches on many points, such as that “there’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure”, and that if you thought the internet has pitched us into a world where nobody reads long-form content, you’re wrong; TV did that, 30 or 40 years ago.

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

Maybe Shirky deals with that. After all, he’s a clever guy.

NCP: all they want is your money. More of it.

The railway station where I get the train to London has a car park that is now run by National Car Parks (hereafter NCP). Until January 10, you can buy your car parking ticket along with your rail ticket, and then park the car. Simple enough. One transaction, two tickets, one location.

But after that date, you’ll only be able to buy your car parking tickets from NCP’s machine, or via text or phone call.

At first the idea of buying the car park ticket – actually a virtual one – through a text or phone call is attractive. Great – I can park the car if I’m in a hurry, and get straight on the train, text from there, sorted.

Except when you look at the fine print. (Which is the link of “How it works” from the “Fastpark by phone” page, just in case that’s a one-off URL.)

How much does it cost?

We will calculate the best possible price for the duration that you have requested. The parking fee plus a Service Charge will be charged to your credit or debit card. The Service Charges are as follows:

20p where the parking charge is less than £2

30p where the parking fee is £2 or more

10p to extend a parking session

Optional text reminders or text receipts are charged at 10p per text.

Network charges may vary and are not included in the service charge.

Come on – it all adds up to more money for them. A 10% rise on the sub-£2 transactions, and 15% on those only just over. Plus you have to guess how many hours you’re going to be there; the previous system just let you buy until midnight, by which time you were very likely to be back, and also there were unlikely to be wardens checking for infringements.

I know – might be credit card charges? Except that why would they go up like that?

And more to the point: what was wrong with the ticketing office selling car park tickets? They did it perfectly well. They did it very well. It worked. There was no need to change it – except that NCP is a bastard greedy company.

And so I ask the question again: what was wrong with the original system? Oh, well, I guess it’s time to go to the local paper. Like I did when this was being suggested back in June or so.