Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pandora Town Hall, UC Berkely, Dec. 4, 2006

Last night I attended a second Pandora Town Hall over at Cal in the Heller Lounge at the Student Union. I’m fairly sure that that room did not exist when I attended Cal – it’s one of a very few rooms in that building where I did not play music at some point. I played on the same bill as Sheila E., of all people, upstairs in the Ballroom once. Not that surprising really: she’s a local girl, and the director of UC Jazz at the time was well acquainted with her dad, Pete Escovedo. I also played a private goodbye get-together with my favorite group of street musicians up on the second floor as well. Ah, the good old days…

But back to the Town Hall. It was a warm winter evening in Berkeley and the room was hot and stuffy. About 150 people showed up, and there was still room for more. The crowd seemed to be about half grad students and half community geezers like me. This town hall had a much smaller presence from Pandora than the San Francisco one did and was, I suspect, a much more typical version of the Tim show. We started about fifteen minutes late.

Tim greeted the audience, took a couple of immediate questions, but the second, “What is Pandora?” launched him into a abbreviated version of the history of the company and a description of the player. The crowd seemed to be somewhat more conversant with the player than the earlier one.

Since July the number of analysts at Pandora has increased from 42 to 45. They are now analyzing tracks at about 15,000 per month compared to 12,000 then. Registered users have increased from 2.5 million to 4 million. My notes say that they now have registered 3 million feedback thumbs, but, given that that number in July was 100 million, I suspect that that number is really 300 million. There are now over 500,000 songs analyzed and available to play on Pandora. Pandora is still hiring which remains a good sign.

Tim outlined the current top 3 priorities of the company to be:

  • A mobile version of the player.

He noted in answering a question later that the infrastructure to support a mobile version of the player is not really available yet. It would really help to have a cheap cell phone connection to the internet or municipal wifi in place to get Pandora to be mobile.

I’d love to have a mobile version of Pandora. However, I seriously might never buy any music ever again were Pandora available everywhere. Thus, I’m not really convinced that Tim’s vision for a $100 billion annual market for music is served by mobile Pandora. It is, however, a service I would be willing to pay, say, $20 per month to have, and while that might help Pandora, I don’t see how that money would get efficiently back to the musicians.

  • International Service

Pandora continues to explore how to legally offer their service to people outside the US, and how to incorporate music which has not had a US release.

This goal is probably the one that I’d most like to see happen. I suspect, however, that progress in this area will be slow and incremental.

  • Listener to listener interactivity

I’m becoming more cynical about this goal. I love to talk about Pandora, but I’m finding that very few people do. Pandora-forum.com peaked at a total of four regular posters before it died a cold, cold death. There’s a lot of enthusiasm when people initially discover Pandora, but I think for most people that once they’ve incorporated the player into their lives, it becomes the music spigot, and they’re about as interested in talking about it as any other utility. There is probably more interest and activity at the P,G and E forums.

Tim, as usual, opened the floor to questions.

The desire for Classical music was once again expressed. Tim still agrees that it is something that he wants to see on Pandora, but he noted this time that it requires a different musical training for the analysts.

Someone raised the issue of the traits listed for the songs. Tim polled the audience on how many would like to be able to build stations based on traits, and the response was quite strong even when he pushed back and asked if we would do so regularly.

Tim noted that the guy in charge of designing the interface had a background in designing interfaces for children’s toy, and so was always pushing to keep things simple.

I believe that the simplicity of the player’s interface is the single most important key to Pandora’s success. The first thing that anyone should see of the player is that if they type in an artist or song that out will come an unending stream of related music. Yes, I want to get under the hood, and I want more tools to design stations than we currently have. But those tools should be relatively hidden. The first version of the player that people see must remain simple and elegant.

Tim also noted that the traits that we see on Backstage and which have been scraped onto the wikipedia page are not the traits in the genome. He called them “focus traits” and said that they were aggregate descriptions of clusters of values of the underlying genome traits. This revelation helped me to understand Pandora a bit more. The focus traits are probably being assigned to clusters on an ad hoc basis, and they are probably floating all the available resulting focus traits up to Backstage which is why there are so many more focus traits for the standard catalogue than for the Holiday songs. They probably just have not assigned that many focus traits for the Holiday genre.

The editorial process was addressed when one audience member mentioned that several bands he knew had sent Pandora their CD, but the music has never appeared. Tim noted that the process takes about five weeks, and so if the music had not been posted up by that point then it had been rejected.

I’m actually fine with the foraging process and the editorial decisions except for Pandora’s dirty little secret: they don’t analyze all the tracks on a CD, and when you successfully search for a track with the player that has not been analyzed the player does not tell you that fact, but, apparently, instead generates music as if the corresponding artist had been selected. One of the regulars at the now defunct pandora-forum found at least one CD for which only a single track had been analyzed. I am particularly frustrated when I discover that tracks that I particularly like have not been covered on a CD when tracks I like less have been. There seems to be no hope that such tracks will ever be incorporated into Pandora unless many people search for them, and how likely is that going to happen for pieces like The Bobs’ “Share A Load”?

In response to a question about musical genres, I noted how much more focused the Holiday station based on all the available version of Ave Maria is compared to the same station based on the non-Holiday versions. Part of that is the fact that there is very little Classical music encoded on Pandora, but it also suggests that meta-information tags like “Holiday” can make a Pandora station much more focused and enjoyable. Tim noted for a related question that they might be open to letting people import feedback from other music services.

A couple of different questions arose around the interaction of people’s music collection and Pandora. One gentleman wished Pandora could read his iPod track-list and not play any tracks he already had. Modulo the usual copyright issues, that would seem to be a reasonable request. Another guy wished the tracks he owned could be played they way Pandora does. This one is much trickier. If Pandora has not analyzed the tracks you own then it can’t really assess which tracks are related to each other. It might be possible to match your list of tracks and indicate when a track already own is playing, however. Which reminds me, I’d love to have flags indicating when a track is “fresh” (analyzed in the past three months) and “new” (released in the US in the last twelve months), and then be able to emphasize or de-emphasize fresh, new or owned songs for each station.

Another audience member inquired whether Pandora would ever be interested in starting a record label. Tim said no, because the principle to which they aspired was one in which no artist or company could buy preferential treatment from Pandora. The audience member then ranted about iTunes, how Apple undercut fair returns to the artists in favor of sweet deals for the record companies in order to sell iPods. Tim offered an alterntive vision of a distribution system in which people were connected directly to artists, paid, say, 25 cents per song but the artist received 15 cents of that rather than the 2 or 3 cents that they receive under the iTunes deal. Tim did not say how or who would engineer such a distribution system.

Someone asked if Pandora was going to create a genome for movies. Tim did not answer the question, but did note that someone did recently call him asking for guidance and help in creating a genome for wine. He said that it was likely that we would be seeing several other genome approaches to identifying products in the coming years.

The crowd began to get restless at 8:30, and so Tim brought the meeting to a close and released the swag. I spotted two hat designed and three new t-shirt designs.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Pandora Townhall Meeting, San Francisco, July 19, 2006

Last night I attended a town hall meeting led by Tim Westergren, CSO of Pandora. I took notes at the request of the folks over at Pandora-forum. I'll include my reaction to the various issues that came up in italics.

It was an beautiful evening in San Francisco. The temperature was downright balmy with a good breeze keeping things cool without the usual fog chill. The event was held in the small Zeum theater. By the time the meeting started twenty-odd minutes late every seat in the roughly 200 seat venue was full.

Tim introduced himself by giving a brief history of these meetings. Starting in January with a visit to Portland where two fans showed up, and including one stop in Texas where no one showed up at all, these events have become increasingly popular with 150 coming to one at NYU, and, of course, now the San Francisco event was so popular that they're having an additional event next week to accommodate the overflow.

Tim started by setting the agenda for the meeting. He planned to give a history of the company and the website. Since the whole purpose of these meetings is creating dialogue with the listeners, he encouraged people to ask questions and to feel free to depart from that agenda.

He remarked that Pandora was actively hiring, and pointed out the HR person in the back to talk to if anyone was interested in working at Pandora.

It's an extremely encouraging sign for the health of Pandora that, like, the third thing out of Tim's mouth was that they really need people. As we shall see, this last seven months as been a period of explosive growth at the company.

Tim mentioned briefly that the company is a bit over seven years old now. They landed their first bit of capital in March of 2000 immediately before the bubble burst.

He then turned to his personal history. He had tried to make it in a rock band. They toured throughout the West in van, often passing other bands on the road between gigs. It was clear that one of the major problems for musical artists in general is connecting the artists to their audience.

Tim then went into film composition where directors were often looking for Tim to create a song like one particular one the director had in mind for a scene, but that would be cheaper than acquiring the rights.

In the Internet culture of that time there was a hope and belief that the music industry would be turned upside-down: the digital technology would allow artists to produce and distribute their music without becoming beholden to the major labels. Amazon, for instance, launched a program called "Amazon Advantage" in which the company offered to warehouse any music (say, 5 cds from a band) and then sell them from the site. The problem remained, however, that the artists could not find their audience.

Tim was living Palo Alto when he came up with the idea for the genome. Pandora now has 42 music analysts encoding that genome for songs. They analysts spend an average of 20 minutes on each track. The investors complain that the process is not scalable, but Pandora maintains that in order for the genome to work the listeners must be trained.

We'll come back to this point in the Q & A, but I believe that Pandora is exactly right on this point.

After the first infusion of capital in 2000 they ran out of money after one year. The employees did not take salary for two years, contributing time as they were able. In March, 2004 they landed an additional $8 Million. During that period they had licensed the technology to a few companies, but the big thing that happened during that period was that broadband penetration in the US had grown dramatically so that a critically large market had become available for digitally streaming radio.

Further, the DMCRA (the audience boos) cleared up licensing issues. Under the act there was a spectrum of royalties from free for broadcast to specified amounts for digital sales of tracks with digital radio somewhere in between. In became clear that a good use for the Pandora database would be the generation of play-lists.

And so they changed the name of the company and spent a year and a half building the Pandora device. They tested the product by trying it out on 200 of their friends and family in October, 2005 telling the testers not to spread it around yet. Within a week there were 5,000 people listening. The genie was escaping the bottle, and so they massively accelerated the development of the software, and started charging a fee for the service to stem the tide. People just re-upped for the free first ten hours by cleaning their cookies etc.

Thus, they launched the free service in November. At that point they were Slashdotted at which pointed 250,000 visited the site in a single day, and bandwidth had to be expanded dramatically. At this point 2.5 million people have created an account. Since the site is supposed to be limited to US listeners, they require the listeners to supply a zip code. The most popular zip is "90210". Tim: "That's deeply depressing."

Now the company is focused on building out the corporate infrastructure, creating a mobile product and figuring out how to work out the licensing issues for moving legally into International distribution. (Tim is completely aware of the popularity of Pandora in other countries, and he really wants to make the site global, but it's a tricky issue since there is no international equivalent to the DMCRA for Pandora to leverage.)

Considering the industry problems from the musician's side, there are 270,000 SKU's generated in the US for recordings each year but only 5,000 of those recording account for 90% of the sales which are currently $10 billion. Tim believes that if the artists can be connected with their audience more efficiently that the sales should be more like $100 billion. His vision is that with Pandora and other internet sites facilitating the connection between artist and audience that the average musician will be able to have a good, middle-class career doing what he or she loves.

Tim points out that the cost of producing an album has dropped to next to nothing in comparison to prior decades. Quality mixing software is essentially free on modern computers. Furthermore, distribution costs have plummeted as well. Thus, the remaing production costs are purely about promotion which is where Pandora is working to fit in.

Tim then opened the floor to questions.

The first questioner referred to an essay by film director Jaron Lanier. (I've tried to find the essay in question. It may be this one.) The questioner summarized Jaron's thesis as saying the music is becoming more homogenized because the available tools limit what can be produced. (Maybe his fifth point in the link?) Tim disagreed, and promoted the position that Pandora should work against such trends.

Okay. Jaron is a friend of a friend, and a couple of decades a ago I got to hang out with him a bit. Jaron is WILDLY eclectic when it comes to music. I'm eclectic: he's orders of magnitude more so than I. Back when he was living in Palo Alto, his livng room was filled with the entire inventory of a typical Lark In the Morning. You'd ask him to identify and instrument and he'd pick it up and start playing, say, a nose-flute. All I'm saying is that Jaron's standard for diversity in music may just be a wee bit wider than the average Pandora listener.

Tim mentioned that over 100 million feedback thumbs have been clicked at this point.

That's a whopping 40 per account. It's pretty clear that most Pandora listeners are not concerned with evolving their stations.

Tim mentioned that they did run a test allowing people to give any answer as to why they gave a thumbs up or down. He indicated that they will be incorporating the results of that test into future features.

Tim dodged answering when they were going international (he deftly dodged all "when" questions). He did mention that they have two full time employees working an the problem at this point.

Someone asked how they plan to make money. Tim stated that advertising should drive the business. They would like to keep the advertising entirely graphical, but even there they've been choosey. They refuse to accept poker ads, for instance. However, the question left hanging unasked in the air was whether they would ever have to admit ads into the audio stream.

Tim was asked whether Pandora was pursuing business-to-business opportunities. Tim responding that they do not wish to lose their current focus. He did mention, however, that the software is currently being used by directors to find similar songs for their films, and bookers for musical venues are similarly using the software to find similar bands for engagements.

Someone asked about getting Pandora for their home system. Tim pointed out the Squeezebox principal in the audience and mentioned that Pandora accounts for 50% of Squeezebox listening at this point.

Tim promised that there will be more features for power users.


Tim surveyed the audience if they felt their Pandora stations were too repetitious. There was a strong minority of hands up on that one.

I raised my hand. I can build a station with a wide variety of music that is not repetitious; however, I still hear the same track on the same station within a six hour listening session. I doubt many are doing six-hour listening session as am I. And so I'd just like the option to increase the time between repeats beyond the industry mandated minimums.

He pointed out that they've made a conscious effort to keep the interface simple. He talked about interface testing and the frustration of watching people trying to use the program from behind a one-way mirror. "The button's right there!"

A DJ from Sweden pointed out that LastFM has much better features for musicians. Pandora wants to provide similar features for artists. Currently, they'll provide some information for artists when requested, but it's not automated yet. Tim made the case that Pandora does not require an initial tagging by an audience for a song to go into rotation in a station.

Tim surveyed the audience about iPod ownership. He pointed out that studies have shown that people basically go through a burst of ripping when they first get one, and their radio listening drops. But after a few months they are listening to more radio than they did before the purchase.

There were a couple of A&R representatives from small labels in the audience. The first asked if Pandora would ever take money from labels to get their artists included in the database. Tim did say, "We're never going to slot music because someone is paying us." (the audience cheered.)

I interpret Tim's response to mean that they won't force songs to be selected more frequently by stations, but that response doesn't quite address the question about how tracks are selected to be encoded. Would they take money to get a release encoded? Or, worse, prevent other labels tracks from be being included? I doubt the latter, but what if BMG said, "Look, we'll pay the salaries for all analysts necessary to encode our entire output?"

Tim was asked about the process for selecting which tracks to encode. Pandora currently has two employees whose entire job is foraging for new music. They receiving about 30,000 to 40,000 suggestions for tracks each month but only have the capacity to encode 12,000 currently. Tim did say that they do not envision Pandora striving to be completist. They see the decision for encoding a particular track as an editorial decision. He did not address how such editorial decisions are being made in general. They see themselves as the conservators of a music library.

If so, why The Shaggs, Tim? For the love of the Goddess, why The Shaggs?

The other A&R rep asked why Pandora required the product encoded to have an SKU. Tim responded that they structured the database to use SKU as the key identification number, and told the rep to get UPC's for their product: it's apparently cheap to do so.

Someone asked if they considered scaling up the process of encoding the music by setting up something like a wiki process. Tim responded that they had tested the idea, but that without the four days of training that they put their analysts through, the average listeners do not agree on what the various genes mean in practice. He can have two trained analysts analyze the same track and get almost exactly the same encoding which is not the case for untrained listeners. He mentioned that 10% of tracks are reviewed twice to confirm this consistency.

As I mentioned above, I think that Pandora has got this part of the process exactly right. That is exactly the kind of control that one would like to have in place.

Tim mentioned that they do get a commission on sales through the site, but they did not see that as a large source of potential income.

Tim closed on a non-question from a listener who was pretty much overwhelmed (positively) by all the new gospel music she had discovered through Pandora. That audience cheered the shared experience.

Pandora provided soft drinks for a mixer after, and Tim introduced several others form Pandora that people might like to talk to. They offered free t-shirts and caps to the people who came to the meeting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pandora Shame Pt. 2

I just gave a thumbs up to a Diana DeGarmo song on my Ecclectica station. Deus meus, ex toto corde poenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum, eaque detestor, quia peccando, non solum poenas a Te iuste statutas promeritus sum, sed praesertim quia offendi Te, summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris. Ideo firmiter propono, adiuvante gratia Tua, de cetero me non peccaturum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum. Amen.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Shaggs On Pandora!

I don't know what is more funny: the fact of all the albums Pandora could have covered to date they chose the infamous one of The Shaggs, or that the resulting artist-based station is surprisingly good. Unless, of course, an actual Shaggs song comes up. Of course, I'm giving thumbs-up to their songs on that station. But can you image someone creating a Who station and getting a Shaggs track? Too funny.

In other news, an infant Pandora fan forum has been launched at pandora-forum.com. Join us there if you'd like to discuss all things Pandora.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Ethic of Blood

Hee! I just had an article and poem published in Witch Eye #13. I came across the Witcheye Yahoo group a month or so ago, and Storm was asking for submissions with a deadline that weekend. I cranked out two poems on Friday, and then told him I could do an article on Monday. As always, I am drawn to ethical matters like the proverbial moth; hence, I explored the idea of one particular ethic of a Faerie bloodline.

I was shocked when I looked up the role of iron in human blood to see a diagram of the heme molecule in which the Fe atom is at the center of a cross of four N's. I immediately thought of our circle casting and the role of the priestess in relation to the seven directions. What fun.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

1000th post at Ship of Fools

Nearly three years ago I was led to the forums at Ship of Fools (SoF) by Kevin Iga (kiga) and ChastMastr at the forums of an online Pagan comic, Oh My Gods. I have posted more at SoF more than I have at any other fora, and today I hit a milestone of 1000 posts.

I feel, if anything, I am less Christian than when I start posting at the predominantly Christian SoF. I'm still actively serving at St. John's Presbyterian in Berkeley, trying to insure that our congregation survives its next hundred years even as its first hundred years come to a close. But SoF has made me much more aware how few Christians would consider me a Christian, and, further, how very little I care that they would do so.

In the past three years I have served on the Pastor Nominating Committee for St. Johns and, subsequently, as an Elder and the Treasurer. But, at the same time, I helped start the legally incorporated church for the Third Road where I serve as Treasurer as well. And I just completed an article on Pagan ethics which will appear in issue #13 of the Feri zine, WitchEye.

I do not understand the need for any myth to be historical fact, but it is clear that Christianity percieves itself as essentially different from Pagan religions in its insistence that at least some of its myths are literally true. Certainly, there are large sections of Christianity which now accept that some of its myths like the seven days of creation and the flood are not historical fact, but the vast majority insist that at least three myths must be true for Christianity to be Christianity: there is one and only one God, that God incorporated exactly once in the human form of Jesus, and that Jesus rose physically from the dead in a way that is fundamentally different from medical recussitation.

My faith subsumes Christianity in ways in which Trinitarian Christianity will most likely never be comfortable. I believe in one God which manifests through myriads of beings some of which are so wise and powerful relative to we humans that they can be justifiably called Gods. I believe that the Goddess did incarnate as Jesus, but that She can and does incarnate to a lesser or greater extent through all sentient beings. I believe that Jesus did defeat the powers of death and sin, and that the physical ressurection may or may not have happened, but that the historical truth of Jesus' physical recussitation is irrelevant in comparison to the spiritual Ressurection for all sentient beings which transcends the bounds of time and space.

I can understand the historical necessity for Christian to have clung to these myths, but I do not see the need to cling to them any longer particluarly since parts of what are attached to the Christian mythos are obviously evil and wrong. Women are spiritual equals to men and equally adept as preistesses. Gays are equally capable of commitment to God and to their relationships before God as those who aren't gay. The Bible is not a good science textbook.

And so I wait patiently for Christianity to grow up. It won't completely in my lifetime, and so I work towards the religion which augment it if not supplent in the next millenium. And I shall continue to participate at SoF in order to abet that process.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dr. Pandora Love

...Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love my Pandora Shame

It's pretty much inevitable. You'll build a Pandora station, and out will come this song that you really like and you've never heard it before and so you click over to the pandora page and ... oh, my, god: Cyndi Lauper ?!? How will I ever live with the shame?

I'm being harsh on Ms. Lauper. I really don't know her oevre other than her hits of two decades ago. It's just that a cut of her's is an example of the kind of personal issue that Pandora makes you confront. Are you going to let what you know or don't know about a particular band color your opinion of a particular track?

I've had to train myself not to immediate reject a track just because it's by someone, gasp, popular (or who, at least has been popular). It's hard to resist that condidtioning and just admit that you like a track.

Of course, it'll take a bit more for me to buy an album by a popular artist I did not "discover" before they were popular. However, I'm saying right now that if I hear two tracks that I like on the same album by someone like Ms. Lauper, then I'll buy that album.

Speaking of Pandora-based purchasing I bought my first two cd's this week based on Pandora supplied music. That's $20 so far that Pandora has won for the industry from me. I'll put up a post about them when I've worked my way through them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


It is time for me to rave about Pandora.com. I first learned about Pandora in an article in the East Bay Express, one of several local alternative weeklies I tend to read over lunch. Pandora is a free website that streams digital music to your computer in a way that is fairly well tailored to your musical tastes.

How Pandora Works

The simple answer is that you type in a song or a band and out comes a succession of songs similar to the seed you provided. The exact methodology is known ony by those working at Pandora, and they're not telling everything. Nevertheless, they have revealed some of process.

They have apparently created a database of songs in which every song has been evaluated based upon a few hundred musical characteristics that they call "genes". I suspect that at least some of these genes are a set of binary flags indicating particular traits, and that some subsets of traits are mutually exclusive. That is, song might be considered to have the musical trait "major key tonality" or "minor key tonality" but not both at the same time.

(The application can provide a list of some of the traits used to select a particular song, and I believe I've seen "major key tonality" listed. I do not know if they lump all other tonal modes into a single category called "minor key tonality" or if they break them into seperate genes. Furthermore, I do not know how they handle cases of songs which change tonality.)

When you provide a song the application then selects a sequence of songs which are similar to that song. Pandora is not saying exactly how that selection is done, but it is possible to guess how it might work. I think that the algorithm randomly selects a set of traits for each song, and then having filtered based on those traits, it contructs a distance metric over at least some of the remaining traits and chooses a song which is within a specified radius using that metric. The radius selected is probably based on the number of songs which are considered close by the metric, so that is you're song is in a relatively sparsely populated part of the database the radius will be wider, and if the song is like a lot of other songs, the radius will be tighter.

I suspect that the initial selection of genes is not uniform distributed across all the available genes, and I'm not even certain that Pandora even reveals some of the genes that it considers important. For instance, I suspect that the release date of the track is a gene. I do not know that they even have to emphasize more recent releases over older material because I suspect the database is biased that way already. I suspect that the length of the track is a gene, as well. It would not surprise me if there were popularity genes based on sales or click-throughs to Amazon or iTunes.

When you listen to a song you may provide three forms of feedback. You may do nothing, you may give the song a thumbs-up (+), or you may give the song a thumbs-down (-). The most important of these appears to be the (-). If I understand the FAQ's correctly, a single (-) to a song will prevent that song from ever playing on that station. Two (-)'s on songs by one artist will prevent any other songs by that artist from playing on that station again. I suspect that (+)'s on the other other hand effect the distribution on the initial filtering genes. The more you (+) songs with a particular trait, the more that songs with that trait will be selected.

Why I Like Pandora

It's like having a comercial-free radio station that plays nothing but music that you like. I've never been a big fan of listening to music on the radio. My tastes just are far too broad and ecclectic to be found on any one station, or even on any one program on more adventuresome sources like college radio or public stations. One of my favorite memories was having the floor's scrounger come into my dorm room in college realize that I had a bunch of records that he could potentially borrow, having him examine my collection and watching his face fall as he realized that he recognized little if any of the records in my collection.

For me the most exciting thing about music is finding a new artist that I really like. Back in high school, someone at the local branch of a now defunct chain of record stores, Music Plus, used to put stickers with his or her comments on some of the albums. Those stickers led me to Novalis and Goblin. The first album I bought when I was in third grade was Carlos' Switched On Bach. The electronic music bin at Music Plus later led me to Synergy, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. And so, of course, I came to more popular groups like Yes, Genesis, ELP, and Kraftwerk. Often I learned of bands before the became popular, and, I admit, I was sometimes disappointed when they did. (I still think that stance is somewhat justified when the hoi palloi acclaims the Human League's "Don't You Want Me Baby" when they were doing a bit more interesting stuff in the years prior to that release, for instance.)

I do like it on those rare occasions when I can turn people onto something they never would have heard otherwise. One New Year's Eve party at Leslie's old appartment, she asked me if I had anything to put on, and I tentatively put in the Hedningarna compilation released in the US as Fire by The Heathens. To my utter and complete surprise the entire room started dancing to it! Ladies and gentlemen we have a winner!

Pandora completely satisfies that need I have to explore for new material while still enjoying old favorites. I've never been that enthused by the MP3 exchange explosion and iPodery. First, there was the moral considerations of peer-to-peer copying. I want the artists I like to be compensated by my purchases. Second, I like to gain some context for an artist by hearing their music within the program defined by an album side or a cd. How would an iPod or iTunes help me find the next Hedningarna?

But the potential for Pandora's finding me groups like Hedningarna seems limitless. I have station already which streams me pop-punk, folk, techno-pop and reggae, and I love it! I already found some new bands to match my tastes, and will have to go on a cd buying mission to Berkeley here shortly (I want local record stores to stay in business).

It Could Be Better, Though

Because my house is a loft, my home computer is in the same room, essentially, as our home theater where my son spends his non-homework hours playing. And so, the first thing I did when I discovered Pandora was figure out how I could get a decent headphone system to work the Pandora stream coming through my computer. I swiftly leanred about the strange and wonderful world of Head-Fi which has grown up around portable audio. Thanks to the help folks at the Head-Fi forums I purchased a nice set of circumaural headphones (Beyerdynamic DT880's from Jan in Germany) and the second-to-last Go-Vibe v4 headamp ever produced by Norm. It's such a boutique business! It took me month to get all the equipment, but I am extremely satisfied with my set-up now.

I do, however, wish there were a way to carry Pandora with me. Right now, the Pandora application requires at least a Flash 7 player. Currently, the smallest devices with Flash 7 players are laptops which are all more than I want to carry. Adobe just released Flash Lite 2.0 which should be able to run Pandora on PDA's and cellphones, but it won't be until later this year for such devices to come available.

The second complaint that everyone has about Pandora is, of course, that the selection of music is limited. Right now, any music before the turn of the century is pretty spotty, many genres are sprasely covered and some genres like Classical in particular are not available at all. My personal preferences would put World Music on the top of the list for expansion, then probably Classical. More, broader, wider!

As for the application itself, I have some minor suggestions. I really wish that the three station edit tabs were sortable alphabetically by title and artist. In particular, the second (-) for an artist is a pretty big decision for a station, and so it would be nice to warn you when your about to do so. I wish there was a way to delete songs from your favorites page as well. When I create a station, I often want to be able to publish that station and so I just pick a song as a favorite on that station to get it posted to the favorites page.

Finally, I wish there was a message board community around Pandora to share stations and station building techniques and to talk about music and Pandora.

All in all, however, Pandora has been the best thing in music to enter my life in a long, long time. I am looking forward to discovering new music and enjoying old favorites through it. I hope that it remains free, but that the company achieves financial success. I look forward to seeing how the product will evolve. I think that Pandora will be an important part of my life, hopefully for years to come.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I should write a poem today. It's my favorite holiday, and I was initiated on this day. Instead, let me do the blog thing, and post my thoughts on the various things I incountered on the web today.

Ship Of Fools had a discussion of the variations used in English language services on the Lord's Prayer. The discussion reminded me to read the version I wrote for the Goddess:

Our Lady's Prayer
Friday the 13th of March, 1992

Our Mother who art the Earth,
Hollowed be thy name.
Thy community come,
Thy cycle be done
In us as it is
In Your seasons.
Give us this day
Our daily bread,
And heal our hurts
As we try to heal
the hurts of others.
Lead us away from pollution,
And bring us all joy,
For Thou art the World,
The wonder and the glory

I sent that to Pastor Max once, but he never made a comment.

Looking for inspiriration I read one of my favorite Discordian pieces: Crazy Hassan and his Clearing House of Delights. I did a search on Crazy Hassan, but that meme has not gone much further than this brilliant piece. But a short chain of links led me to this wonderfully blasphemous thread.

My BART reading this week is John Daido Loori's The Zen of Creativity in which he mentions that the literal meaning of chi is breath.

Chi is breath.
Spirit is breath.
Ha is breath.
A Ha Prayer is a Chi Prayer.
We breathe mana.
We are breathed into life by God.
We breathe the Goddess into life.
We breathe together.
We conspire.
It's all a conspiracy, you know.
Your subjectivity is that of a still life being painted into being by God.
You are a work of art.
You are a work of art that can create works of art.
You honor the Goddess with your beauty and your passion.
Be adored.

So, I decided not to write a poem today.

Blessed Brigid.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Rise of Early Christianity

This is my response to this post at the Wildhunt Blog.

I just finished slogging my way through Robin Lane Fox's book Pagans and Christians and so I'm pretty fresh on the arguments. Fox's book is highly frustrating in that while it is exceedingly boring, long, boring, thorough and boring it nevertheless never really manages to answer the question it purports to address namely why Christianity managed to supplant classical paganism in the Mediterranean between 150 and 350 CE. Nevertheless, what conclusions it does point towards do not entirely match the six points of Chutney's summary.

"..bewildering array of new gods and cults.": not much evidence for this in Fox's book at least. Ever since Herodotus five centuries earlier people and known of many gods and pantheons. The families in power in the Roman Empire and regionally tended to be quite conservative, and so the longevity of any particular practice tended to give it authenticity. Early Christianity was dismissed out of hand precisely because it was new by the rulers of 2nd Century who also had a difficult time understanding that this new religion was anything other than a branch of Judaism.

"Conversion": Undoubtedly important, but understates how important the possibility for overachievement and perfectionism was for the movement. Christianity offered a select, dedicated few the opportunity to achieve glory through strict asceticism and civil disobedience. The teachings of Jesus pointed towards a self-control and self-denial that was both novel and quite attractive for some personalities. Thus, every wave of persecution allowed a new set of martyrs to step forward to actively assert their fanaticism and create the stories that attracted others to the faith.

Christian priests vs. pagan: nope, this is a bit off too. Christian priests did offer personal wisdom, but, more important, they provided a judicial role that was otherwise solely available through the relatively rare circuit of roman governors. Christian priests were anointed for their lifetimes, while pagan priesthoods were generally held through family lines and terms of service were generally limited to a few years. Some pagan oracular methods were co-opted whole cloth by the ensuing Christians and these oracles were generally seen as sources of wisdom before and after Christianity. It certainly true that Christian priests were more involved in people’s day to day lives.

Egalitarianism in the Christian priesthood: almost certainly true, but I'm not sure how important it was to the spread of the movement. Christianity did focus its attention on meeting the needs of Christian poor providing a role for both the rich and the poor in the community, and that delineation of roles might have been more important to Christianity’s spread.

Donations: well, particularly after the 2nd Century there were definitely some wealthy Christians already. More to the point, however, was the fact that donation to a pagan cult became a duty of an increasingly smaller set of families. There was a growing concentration of wealth in fewer families during this period which made the cultic acts become more acts of ostentation for the few than a universal service of the gods.

Mass movement: Christian leaders generally hid out in the hills during the persecutions. The biggest thing that allowed Christianity to flourish was the fact that it was eventually decided that Christianity could include more than just the overachievers and the perfectionists. You could lapse and offer the required incense to the gods during the persecutions, and Christianity would take you back after an appropriate act and period of contrition. Thus, it became fairly common for people to postpone baptism so that they could still insure their salvation while they knew they were still likely to willingly sin. Constantine was, by no means, alone in that particular tactic.

For me, one thing missing on the list is the point that Christianity managed to integrate philosophy with religion. Many pagan philosophers were not religious when compared to their contemporaries and conversely most cults had no philosophy whatsoever. Most pagan philosophers, for instance, had reached the conclusion that infant exposure was wrong. Christianity also said exposure was wrong and had a framework into which that ethic fit quite nicely. The integration was far from perfect, but it was more appealing and universal than anything that came before.

Certainly, the promotion of Christianity by Constantine mattered a lot as well. Fox seems to suggest that the growth of Christianity prior to Constantine has been overestimated by prior historians. He seems to believe that it was largely the money Constantine and his family poured into the Church that fueled its greatest period of growth.