Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Saturday, January 29, 2005

"You Rock!" Award #2 - Chuck Cook

Putting this award in its historical context; back in a previous life, i.e. sometime in, I think 2001, I stumbled across an online music service called LAUNCHcast. For me, it was the answer to a prayer, because it helped to fill a gaping void in my entertainment spectrum. At the time, I was renting a flat in the centre of Cambridge, whose external TV aerial was non-functional. At that point, I was living on severely limited disposable income, so couldn't afford to pay for the aerial to be fixed, or to buy an indoor aerial that worked, or pay for cable / satellite to be installed; but, I *did* have broadband internet access, because I needed that to facilitate the limited amount of professional work my declining health permitted me to undertake. My domestic media options were therefore limited to the DVDs, VHS and CDs I already owned, the limited selection available for borrowing from the town library... and whatever I could find on the internet.

As I've previously written, I absolutely love discovering and listening to new music (either "new" in the sense of upcoming, undiscovered talent; or "new" as "new to me"). And, satisfying as my personal collection was, it provided no means to discover new music to listen to. In 2000, I was renting a different property further out in the country, and had Sky digital satellite service, which included music channels such as the standard MTV / VHS1 fare, as well as Q Interactive and Kerrang! TV; between the latter two channels, I'd discovered a host of new artists to enjoy that year. Now, I didn't even have access to those.

And then I found LAUNCHcast. It was a streaming music site, which was not a particularly noteworthy characteristic, even back then; no, the true magic of LAUNCHcast stemmed from the fact that it learned about your tastes as you listened to the music it played, *if* you rated the songs in the simple player application. Each song, album or artist could be rated from 0 to 100 (or even marked as "never play this song / album / artist again"); you could choose or rate entire genres or sub-genres of music (so, for me, independent or industrial rock got a high rating, whereas dance music was way down!); you could create "moods" which would focus on particular styles of music to match your mood at the time; and it was all *free*. The more you used the service, the better it got.

So, in an average hour, I might expect to get a selection of songs I'd specifically rated in the past; or songs which I hadn't specifically rated, but from albums or artists which I *had* rated (and the higher the rating I'd given them, the more likely / frequently those items would play). Which was all great, as far as it went, but wasn't really a step forward from what I could achieve with a personal rated library in, say, RealJukebox or Windows Media Player. No, the real value-add was the percentage of time in the hour when LAUNCHcast would make suggestions of tracks for me to listen to, *and explain the basis on which that suggestion was being made*; e.g. "you've previously rated songs by this artist", "you've rated music in this genre" or "suggested by LAUNCHcast". I interpreted the latter as meaning, "the record company is paying us to plug this artist, so here it is"; but the service was free to the user, so I didn't have an issue with that. After all, if I didn't like what was suggested, I could rate it down, or permanently exclude it from my "station", i.e. the database of my personal musical preferences. And now we get the absolute jewel in the crown of LAUNCHcast at that point; while a particular track was playing, I could see a selection of other LAUNCHcast listeners who'd also rated that song; LAUNCHcast would tell me that "people who rated songs you've rated also rated this song", i.e. fuzzy associations were used to suggest new stuff for me to listen to; I could even choose to listen to *their* station for a while (i.e. the musical choices would be based on *their* preferences, but I could rate the songs suggested and they would help to fine-tune *my* preferences and station).

It probably sounds more complicated than it was; it was absurdly simple to use, yet the more you used it, the better it got. I was so enthused by the service that I made a post espousing its many benefits in a newsgroup I frequented at the time (a private newsgroup for Microsoft Certified Trainers, or MCTs, which, at that point, I was); and in reply came a post from Chuck Cook, an MCT based in Houston whom I then associated with erudite and scholarly posts on networking topics. It turned out that he (and his wife Phaedra) were avid LAUNCHcast users too; I checked out their stations; you guessed it, ChuckCook (and PhaedraCook) rocked! :-) (So did a station called CrispyChicken; I know nothing about the person behind that station, and undoubtedly never will, but I can tell you, CrispyChicken rocked too, in my opinion.)

And then, one day, the lights went out at LAUNCHcast... and when they came on again, a few months later, Yahoo had bought out the service; and what remained was a shadow of its former self. It made no sense to me, at all. Why buy a cracking service and then emasculate it? Well, I never worked it out; but Chuck did, and has recently blogged about it. Since he's done such an excellent job describing the political machinations that absolutely destroyed the service, I won't paraphrase his words, but recommend that you check out his post if this subject interests you. Check out his entire blog, "Bitspitter", if you're interested in computer networking (Ryan, this one's for you!)

So, why is Chuck a recipient of the second, money-can't-buy (and absolutely valueless!) "You Rock!" award? Well, partly because his original LAUNCHcast station helped me discover lots of good music I might otherwise not have heard; but mainly because in the post I just mentioned, he describes, a new site which sounds like it has captured the spirit of what LAUNCHcast used to be and could have been. For pointing me towards, Chuck gets the award.

Chuck; you rock!

(Gratuitous technology ramble alert)

Chuck's post makes the point that one of the biggest assets that got lost in the LAUNCHcast reshuffle (and in similar episodes in other situations) is the carefully-compiled metadata about musical preferences; in an ideal world, that metadata would be exportable and importable into other applications. This strikes me as a stand-out candidate for some descriptive XML schema (maybe such a schema already exists); combine that with something like XFN and / or Attention.XML, we'd have an open and distributed model of personal tastes *and* weighted references from people whose tastes the individual places some value on.

Hey, it's just a thought; what else am I supposed to do at, oh, 3.10 am on a Saturday morning?

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  • At 3:53 pm, Blogger Chuck Cook said…

    Being able to download your compiled data is a brilliant idea! Have you suggested it to the folks? Because if you don't, I will (but you'd be able to describe the database-y stuff much better than a systems weenie like me.)

    And post your ID, so I can make you a 'friend!'




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