Things July 2015: Royalty Redistribution, Live Train Data, Future Cameras and Robot Art

Fairer Royalties, Better Music

I’m very interested in how the internet is changing the music industry. Some things are better (from some viewpoints): it’s cheaper to make music and distribute it; it’s easier to find and listen to a wider range of music. Some things might be worse, but it’s hard to tell: has the average amount of revenue made per song, or per minute of music, gone down? What about for the most popular 10 artists? What about for the median artist by income? Are there fewer full-time musicians, or more?

I’ve not seen good data on that, but this piece in The Economist is suggestive at least: the average age of festival headliners has gone up by 10 years over the past 20 years. But it’s not clear if that’s just because demand (for festivals) has gone up, and supply (of festival-pleasing artists) has risen more slowly, driven by older artists whose audiences now find festivals cater to their needs.

Over on PopJustice (which has my favourite cookie warning message), they suggest the move by Apple to streaming is the final nail in the coffin for not just paid downloads, but a thriving new music industry in general. If this seems hyperbolic, bear in mind that music buying doubtless follows a Pareto curve, and the small cohort that account for most of the music-buying have the strongest (short-term) incentive to switch to streaming.

With all this going on, it’s interesting to take a look at royalty distribution on streaming services. Superficially it seems simple and perfectly fair: they collect subscription fees and ad revenue, and then distribute them to artists based on how often their tracks have been played. This is how it works on Spotify.

But as this thoughtful article points out, that’s not necessarily the fairest. It would be fairer to directly distribute the revenue from a particular customer to the artists that customer listened to. That doesn’t sound like much of a change, but it really is, so I do recommend reading the article to see why. The author also argues that such a situation would be better for everyone, even the labels, and as such should be adopted. I’m less convinced by that. It’s true ‘on average’, but I suspect the current system benefits the bigger labels more, and they have a lot more of the power.

On the plus side, with Apple and Google (and others) getting into the game, perhaps this might emerge as a competitive strategy from one of them…


Dan Deacon: WIWDD

On the subject of new music, well, Dan Deacon is one of my favourite musicians, and it seems Adult Swim had a bunch of animators contribute segments to go with the track “When I Was Done Dying” from his most recent album, and all of those animators seem to have put in about twice as much effort as I was expecting, with this mind-boggling result:


Noticing Racism

For an eye-opening insight into what one might term ‘soft’ racism, I highly recommend reading this sermon followed by these excerpts on prosopagnosia. Primed by the first article, the last couple of paragraphs of the second hit pretty hard.


Real Time Trains

(via @PlanetTimmy)

I found it absurd that I could be on a train with internet access and yet be unable to find out when that train was expected to arrive at the various stops along the way. Evidently I wasn’t looking hard enough, because it turns out this brilliant website has that covered:

There’s also a wonderful site with much more precise data than most people would know what to do with regarding the exact positions and statuses of trains at various key junctions. Each day a random map is free, and it’s £10 for a full year subscription. I haven’t done that yet but it’s very tempting. Check it out!

Of course, once you have this data, you want to make more efficient use of it. For instance, it’s possible with many clicks around RealTimeTrains to figure out if you can make a more efficient connection by boarding a delayed train that was originally supposed to depart before you arrived. So the next thing I need is a service that will tell me not just the best route, but the best route based on where trains are right now.


3D Maps of London Underground Stations

If, like me, you ever wanted to see maps of all the underground stations (specifically the 120 that are actually underground), Ian Mansfield has cleaned them all up and presented them nicely here.


Here Comes The Future

Finally a couple of things that gave me a bit of ‘future shock’.

This (proof-of-concept) camera is powered by the light that its sensor receives. Which, given the similarity between a digital camera’s sensor and a solar panel, actually makes sense. So cameras don’t need batteries. Wow.

Secondly, neural networks can make art. Okay, there is a human operating the controls and deliberately manipulating things to make cool-looking stuff, but maybe later a neural network can figure out what ‘cool-looking’ means better than us, and start producing all kinds of cool stuff. Okay, that bit’s probably a lot further away, but this does make me lose a bit of confidence in the belief that artist’s jobs are robot-proof. Nobody’s job is safe from the robots. The robots are coming. We have been warned.

Transmission abruptly ends


Things 50: Portal, Legalising Street Racing, Supply and Demand

(Originally sent June 2009)

An unusually long multi-lunch-break-requiring Things in unintentional celebration of hitting 50…

Things blog update
My attempts at setting up two WordPress blogs from a single database failed. I will see if I can set up a second database instead for a Things blog, in between revising for my IDM exams.
[Ultimately, that’s exactly what I did. – T.M. 28/5/11]

Yesterday I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. It was an extraordinary experience that is difficult to describe – imagine the kind of inventive unpleasantness that happens to Wile E. Coyote applied to supernatural horror, maintaining some of the comedy aspect, and you begin to get some idea. The trailer sets out the premise very clearly but dramatically underplays the scares:

IMDb rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes aggregate: 95%

This week I finally got around to playing Portal, a short but brilliant game which, for me, achieved the astounding feat of living up to its own considerable hype. Even if you’re not a gamer, the trailer is worth checking out just to see how nifty it is:

If that doesn’t float your boat, here’s a video of a cat that jumps into and out of a tall box. 1’19” is where the best jumping starts happening:

In a fascinating case study for debates on the merits of legalising/criminalising things, police in Florida have been running legal street races in which, for $25, people can attempt to “Beat the Heat”. They claim that given this controlled and safer outlet, they have seen a drastic reduction in illegal street racing.

[Original link is broken, the story is repeated here though – metatim 28/5/11]

[Okay, that link broke too, try this one – metatim 03/08/15]

Gavin Potter, a leading entrant for the NetFlix Prize (see this wired article) said:

“The 20th century was about sorting out supply. The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand.”

In other words, by solving problems of supply (think of all the information/products/services available to you via the web), we create a new problem related to demand – how do we sort through all this stuff?

I saw this articulated in the supermarket last week. A child had clearly been sent to pick up some juice, but was just staring at the shelving three times his height stocked with perhaps a 100 variations on fruit juice. His father turned up and asked what was wrong, to which the child replied with palpable desperation: “I can’t find any fruit juice!”

Here is a lovely graph demonstrating the relationship between Star Trek‘s warp speeds and energy requirements:

On a side note, in Star Trek the ships generate a bubble of distorted space around the ship, which to an outside observer means the ship appears to elongate as it sets off at warp speed. In Star Wars the ships instead enter hyperspace (warning: no basis in science), a kind of parallel universe in which distances are shorter / the speed of light is faster, so no elongation occurs.

Criminally, warp elongation was added to ships entering hyperspace in the Star Wars special editions.

This Week’s Puzzle: Buttons
Why are buttons on clothes for males placed on the opposite side to buttons on clothes for females?

Last Week’s Puzzle: Newspaper Eyeball Value
Last week I asked (roughly speaking) why newspapers are complaining about the internet when many have successful online sites with ads alongside articles just as in the print versions. I received some detailed responses and there’s clearly a lot more research that could be done, but here’s some of the main points:

1) Actually the main newspapers in the UK seem to be perfectly fine, with stable or even growing circulation figures. As JB put it: “I think alarm bells are being rung by consumers that don’t like the net and shareholders with unreasonable expectations!”

A corollary – in a blog post that could desperately use some editing, an argument is made that the important part of a newspaper is not the news (a commodity) but the package and the curation, somewhat consistent with the Gavin Potter quote above.

2) Newspapers cost money to make and to buy. The website version costs a certain amount of money to make but scales much more cheaply, and is free to the consumer. Depending on the scale and margin of each branch, this will give very different results for any given newspaper.

3) Demographics. With TGI I can see that the median age of the most regular newspaper readers (top 2 quintiles) is about 17 years older than the median age of those that regularly visit newspaper websites. The rule of thumb is that who sees your ad has the strongest effect on how well it does (over and above the offer or creative itself). Still one would expect that better targetting leads to better results, and if anything the splitting up of the audience should make targetting easier and hence more profitable.

4) Visibility. Since people get web content for free, they have less invested in it, so are unlikely to read it as attentively (A study suggests people typically read 20% of the text on a web page). Online ads can be blocked, newspaper ads can sit around the house for some time, paper is still easier on the eye than screen, people are more likely to be multi-tasking online… and many other factors similar to this exist.

There are many other arguments and deeper points to be considered about the above, but I would want to be more sure of the data before claiming to have an answer. I may revisit this topic with a more detailed investigation at some point on my blog.


Things 48: Bike Parkour, Limits of Men, Wolfram Alpha

(Originally sent May 2009)

I’m considering switching to a blog format for Things in time for Things 50. Let me know if you have any strong feelings on the subject. [You’re now looking at it! – T.M. 28/5/11]

Danny MacAskill does parkour/free-running but on a bike. Having seen these kind of videos before, I know a lot of them are clearly a collection of flukes edited together – but in this case the man has a staggering raw skill and most of the things he does (with the exception of the first) you get the feeling he could pull off 10 times in a row.

A slow build up, but worth it:

Two quotes capturing a similar idea – decide for yourself just how gender-neutral ‘man/men’ is in each case:

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer

“Men perceive the world from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”
– Simone de Beauvoir

With no regard to downplaying expectations, Wolfram|Alpha is going to attempt to launch within the next 24 hours. In some sense a web front-end for Mathematica, it will essentially curate public knowledge (population demographics, poker probabilities, mathematical algorithms, and who knows what else) and make it queryable with natural(ish?) language.

The hype:
“Wolfram|Alpha is in a sense the “killer app” for Mathematica. It is a chance for Mathematica to show off the astonishing range of things it is capable of doing when it is deployed, not against a specific problem, but against all problems.”

A lovely little .pdf summarising the ‘quest for computable knowledge’ in 2 sides of A4, where Wolfram|Alpha is naturally the next great step.

A bit of geekish chest-thumping as they assert how mighty their works are.

Showing off the maths bit.

The Reality:
From Douglas Lenat:

“[it] covers a large portion of the space of queries that the average person might genuinely want to ask. […] It handles a much wider range of queries than Cyc, but much narrower than Google; it understands some of what it is displaying as an answer, but only some of it […] The bottom line is that there is a large range of queries it can’t parse, and a large range of parsable queries it can’t answer.”

Assuming they can withstand demand, you will be able to try it for yourself very shortly – they will commence launch preparations at 1am tonight / tomorrow morning.

[Of course, it’s now live, and Lenat’s observation remains accurate – T.M. 28/5/11]

Dresden Codak
‘s Aaron Diaz, sporadically brilliant webcomicer, illustrates 7 types of plot twist and how they manifest across six genres, from the Reverse Macguffin in a Thriller to Double Shyamalan Mystery.

Puzzle answer: The Space Stick
Can information travel faster than light if you poke an incredibly rigid stick one light-year long? The answer is no. As many of you observed, ‘pushing’ a solid object does not magically transfer force instantaneously through it, but rather creates a compression wave as atoms or molecules push up against one another, and this is bounded by the speed of light. (There’s also the issues of the necessary rigidity being impossible, the huge amount of inertia you would be working against, needing something to push against, and gravitational complications if you’re anywhere near a planet or other large celestial body).

Many of you chose to focus instead on the general problem of faster-than-light communication. In summary, quantum entanglement does involve ‘spooky action at a distance’, but fascinatingly stops just short of being spooky enough to transfer information. Wormholes, on the other hand, are seemingly permitted by General Relativity, which would seem to lead to paradoxes, and remains a mystery.

This week’s puzzle: Wired’s “Color Scheme”
The US issue of Wired this month is guest-edited by J. J. Abrams and features a lot of interesting puzzles as well as a meta-puzzle (I think). I highly recommend ‘Color Scheme’, which you can try here [link broke, try here – metatim 03/08/15], although you’ll have to resist just clicking for the answer on the link bizarrely placed immediately below the puzzle.


Things 41: Microsoft Future (revoked), Identification by humming, Watermelon Carving

(Originally sent February 2009)

Last week’s Things got out of hand, so I will try to be concise this time.

Microsoft present a vision of the future somewhat obsessed with wafer-thin touch-screens, and unlike a lot of visions of the future I only think some of it is ridiculous and impractical:

[Video is no longer available, and I can’t seem to find it elsewhere on the internet. Perhaps Microsoft changed their mind about the future. – T.M. 3rd April 2011]

I saw a great film this week, here’s a quote that shows you how great it was:

[on the phone] “Hello? Cobra Bubbles? Aliens are attacking my house. They want my dog! Oh good, my dog found the chainsaw.”

I’ll name the film next week, for those that don’t know and don’t want to Google.

Crowdsourced song identification. Sing / hum / play 10 seconds of a tune you need to find the name of into your computer microphone on this site, and people will listen to it and send you their suggestions. More fun (if you don’t have a microphone and a song in mind) is listening to people tunelessly humming tiny fragments of songs at widely varying volume levels with a strange echo (because they have their speakers on) and trying to identify them:

A famous bit of trivia that has been passed around for years holds that over the course of 7 years, every cell in your body will have been replaced with a new one. Are there any simple ways to disprove this?

Watermelon carving has been taken to an extremely high level.