Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Webb Phillips Talks To Animals

I was just listening to “Dreams Never End” by New Order on the balcony, and I noticed a bird chirping away in the background. Suddenly, I realized that he was singing along in harmony, copying the rhythmic and melodic structure of the oft-repeated guitar line that forms the heart of the song. He did this just for one measure before returning to his species-typical calls. Admittedly, it was a one-sided conversation, since the prerecorded music never changed in response to the bird.

I immediately searched youtube for “birdsong” in order to attempt to communicate. He made a call. I played the video. He trailed off. Then I heard him start up again, more excited than before, so I paused the video to listen. Eventually he trailed off again, so I hit spacebar again to resume playback. After a few minutes, I became more able to sense when he was about to end a turn, and pause playback at the exact moment that he began his response. Instantaneous turn-taking often occurs in human communication.

Next I played the youtube video “R2D2 noises” for the songbird. He went wild and began to call back with increasing loudness and complexity until he became distracted or fatigued or offended by me not giving him his turn, and then he flew away. Belle & Sebastian’s “(My Girl’s Got) Miraculous Technique” seems to interest and excite him as well.

I contend that these methods will better lead to human understanding of avian communication than raising a bird in isolation and captivity and then training him to say, in English you stupid fucking bird!!, how many green squares there are on a tray, after which is receives a cracker. Birds love to communicate, and don't need human training or the saltine incentive if we just approach the problem with a little respect and humility for our fellow creatures. Having studied monkey behavior for seven years, it seems to me that the current scientific approach to animal communication is closer to this:

Kitten Paws at Frostie The Cockatoo Dancing Onscreen

Than to this:

Frostie Dances With Owner

Ok, so he rushes during the crescendos, but then again, who doesn't?


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Compromise on Abortion, Gay Marriage, Punishment, Inequality, Mideast Peace, and War

Modern societies are founded on the Enlightenment ideal of reason, and yet these societies are at least equal parts the product of tradition and instinct. We love our brother more than a stranger. We desire revenge against those who have wronged us. We wage war. There is nothing unnatural about any of this. Our close relatives the chimpanzees share all three of these characteristics with us, and according to the principle of evolutionary parsimony, our own proto-human ancestors likely did as well. It is important to remember, though, that just because something is, doesn’t mean it ought to be. Nature is amoral, survival of the fittest, hunters and hunted. Drawing moral lessons from what occurs in nature is a colossal mistake.

Of course, we too are a product of nature, and thus, by extension, so is everything we have ever thought or produced, from American Idol to the Ten Commandments. Which is not to say that there is no God, but if he really cared about human suffering, he surely would have flicked off Hitler’s head with His little finger and saved us all a lot of time and trouble. If God and nature are both off-limits, though, then we must look elsewhere for morality. We must (and regularly do) invent it ourselves.

Looking to the exquisite invention of human culture for moral lessons though can be even more misleading than looking to nature. Firstly, there is the problem of which culture to choose. There are many cultures in the world, each with different values, and the odds of being born into the one culture that happens to have achieved earthly perfection are therefore quite low. Add to this the fact that no human society we know about is without its flaws. Traditional cultures often brutalize women, children, and outsiders without reason. It is more difficult to see the flaws in one’s own culture, as self-knowledge in general is harder to face. Modern societies, though, for all their advantages, are still heavily influenced by cultural traditions. If actions are the product of beliefs, then it would appear for example that we believe it is just for one person to have several mansions and cars and boats and perhaps even a helicopter, while another has no food to eat, that it is just to expel outsiders for the crime of being born in the wrong place, and that it is just to invade other countries and kill people there on a mass scale.

Politics in the United States is highly polarized into Republican and Democratic voters. Neither party when it is in power has particularly appealing policies, and both are heavily influenced by special interests (e.g., J.P. Morgan; Haliburton; AIPAC). Democrats pay lip-service to the poor and middle-class, but do little to help their plight. Republicans are in some sense more honest: they pander to Christian fundamentalist voters, and once elected, actually do pass laws in accordance with these voters’ desire to return to that golden age when adulterous women were stoned to death and Quakers were burned at the stake for heresy. Defenders of well-reasoned positions, such as progressives (e.g., Sen. Bernie Sanders) and libertarians (e.g. Rep. Ron Paul), are highly marginalized. By the manufactured polarization of voters, elections are won and lost on relatively minor but sensitive issues, leaving leaders from both parties a free hand to wage wars of adventure and kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Abortion is one such polarizing issue. According to many Christians, killing a fetus is taking a life, and it is not entirely obvious even from a non-religious perspective that they are incorrect about this. Regardless of the merits of their position, important elections are won and lost over this issue, while more important issues such as war receive less attention. Strange, considering that in the case of war, as opposed to abortion, there is universal consensus that taking life is necessarily involved. Abortion, though, is just one possible solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. I would like to propose another: give everyone free condoms and birth control, and encourage their use through public education. Many Christians would hate this idea. True, fundamentalists do view non-procreative sex as a sin, but I suspect a lesser sin than aborting a fetus. If free contraception for all comes at the price of banning abortion, they might consider it.

Gay marriage is another important issue where a compromise could enable voters to focus their attention on more life-and-death matters. It differs in some ways from the abortion issue, as being gay and married is hardly killing anyone. Still, there is value in compromise. Ban gay marriage to satisfy fundamentalists, but legalize gay domestic partnerships nationwide. This is a win-win solution, as Christians will feel that the sanctity of marriage is being protected, and gays will be accorded the same rights that straights currently enjoy, albeit under a different name.

Punishment, as it turns out, is a more difficult issue to address than either abortion or gay marriage. According to a recent Gallup poll, 53% of Americans support gay marriage, with 45% opposed. Similarly, 49% are pro-choice, and 45% pro-life. In contrast, a whopping 64% of Americans favor the death penalty (up from a low of 42% in 1966). Retribution runs deep in our culture, and is likely a part of human nature as well. The revenge instinct, if there is one, may have evolved as a way to scare others away from wronging us (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1988; Cosmides & Tooby, 2000). Rehabilitation, on the other hand, does not offer the emotional satisfaction of revenge, but is clearly the more rational choice. Here is a compromise: allow victims to torture their assailants for a little while. Then, having satisfied the human desire for revenge, focus entirely on rehabilitating the offender. Imprisonment itself may be unnecessary: replace the jail cell with an electrified collar which tracks the wearer’s position at all times. Give all citizens the option of an electronic “criminal repellent” device which communicates with the collar to cause temporary immobility should the offender approach a free citizen too closely. Meanwhile, every effort should be taken to address the underlying causes of the offender’s bad behavior. When he is deemed ready, his collar can be removed (or not, depending on the level of risk to others).

Inequality is perhaps the major issue in human society, as other major issues, such as war, may arise from it. Rich people have a lot of wealth, and they want to keep it, too. This issue goes beyond poverty. A well-established phenomenon in psychology is relative deprivation (Runciman, 1972). Seeing someone else with more makes those with less unhappy. Relative deprivation may be the major cause of both unhappiness and criminal behavior. It is unquestionably very bad for society. Radical redistribution of wealth, or even the abolishment of the monetary system are two possible solutions, but neither is likely to come to pass any time soon. At present, Democrats and Republicans are embroiled in a debate over the budget. Republicans want to cut taxes and trim waste, whereas Democrats want to protect Medicare. Perhaps we can do both. Republican Congressman Ron Paul has proposed replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. This would eliminate loopholes as well as a massive amount of paperwork and bureaucracy; the 2012 IRS budget alone is nearly $13.3 billion. Progressives complain that such a policy does little to address inequality. Ron Paul has proposed a voucher system to address this issue, but this solution necessitates creating a new giant bureaucracy to distribute the vouchers. A better option would be to tax expensive items at a higher rate, and cheaper items at a lower rate. Essential items such as bread and eggs could even be “taxed” at a negative rate, that is, subsidized to the point of being nearly free. Free or nearly free food might also eliminate the need for food stamps. The cost of a Ferrari or a Yacht, on the other hand, might double. Harmful goods such as alcohol, tobacco, firearms, currently illegal drugs, and inefficient automobiles could be taxed at a higher rate to increase revenue and decrease consumption. Given all the loopholes in the current system, the super-rich will likely end up contributing more than they do now, not to mention the added benefit of removing the lure of income tax evasion, which may be training wheels for more serious forms of corruption and fraud.

Speaking of corruption and fraud, we need a solution to AIPAC’s (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) excessive influence on American foreign policy. This organization and others like it successfully lobby politicians and media outlets to generate an almost unimaginably pro-Israel bias in the U.S., both in terms of public perception and government policy. To cite just one example, the U.S. media almost never uses the word “occupation,” and many news sources have begun describing Israel’s thus far successful attempts to permanently colonize Palestinian territory in terms not of “settlements,” but “neighborhoods.” The U.S. government supports Israel both financially and in the U.N., and makes no serious effort to force Israel to make peace. It’s understandable why Israel would oppose peace. Israel is in the more powerful position, and so it is against its colonial interests to make peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, for their part, hate the Israelis and would have a hard time making peace as well. Clearly these are two groups of people who would both benefit from learning to live together as neighbors in peace. I suggest that Israel should be allowed to annex all Palestinian territories permanently, but at the same time, send in U.N. monitors to guarantee equal rights for Palestinians in the new Israel/Palestine, including the right to vote.

War is perhaps the greatest horror ever inflicted on humanity by itself. Although it’s history likely predates our own species (e.g., Wrangham & Peterson, 1997), we have perfected it, and on a mass scale. President Bush launched one war of revenge and another of adventure, and under President Obama, both wars have continued without abatement, not to mention the unofficial bombing wars in Pakistan and Libya. Rulers throughout history have used war to cling to power. Wartime presidents are perceived as more strong and capable, and then there is the fear that not reelecting them would reveal a lack of resolve to our enemies. But who are our enemies really? In the case of the destruction of the World Trade Center, evidence has accumulated suggesting that the true perpetrators of this mass-murder may not have been Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but rather, the Bush administration itself, committed in order to justify the premeditated invasion of Iraq. The organization Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth have pointed out that the towers collapsed in free-fall, which is indicative of controlled demolition, not airplane collision or fire. This includes Tower 7, which was never even struck by a plane, yet also mysteriously collapsed in free-fall. Firemen and police who were at the scene heard a rapid series of explosions just before each collapse, and in eyewitness video footage, windows exploding outwards are visible many floors below the burning planes. Finally, thermite and nano-thermite residue were found in the rubble and ash, two substances used in controlled demolitions.

Such an act is called a false flag operation, and has been used many times throughout history, including the burning of the Reichstag, which the Nazis blamed on their Communist rivals, enabling them to seize total control of Germany. The Nazis and the Bush administration are not the only entities to employ false flag operations, though. To cite just one example, the Johnson administration fabricated an attack on the USS Maddox by the North Vietnamese in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. This enabled President Johnson to secure permission from Congress to send troops to Vietnam. Unfortunately, the problem of false flag operations and the wars they lead to is the most difficult yet mentioned, as most people are unaware that governments, and more specifically, their own governments, perpetrate these acts. One unappealing compromise would be to make it much easier for presidents to go to war, while imposing strict limits on the scale of these wars. This would remove some of the incentive to use a false flag operation to garner support from Congress to go to war. A better solution would be to educate and inform Americans well enough that they can see through such antics. A third would be to radically increase government transparency. Make every conversation any public official ever has available to all via the internet. A security risk, to be sure, but then again, isn’t attacking your own people and invading other countries a greater risk?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dutch-American Relations

It feels good to have showered. At this past weekends' festival a drunk man upended danced into my full glass of beer, which spilled all over me. Luckily, Jan had predicted that this would happen, and thus had equipped me with an old corduroy coat to wear. Mm. I'm going to have to wash these jeans though. Yes, I am wearing pants. I never expected life to be so hard.

Or easy, sometimes. I had to stay home from work today to wait for a very important package to arrive. It is a delicate electronic device known as an electroencephalograph. With it, I will be able to detect the patterns in brain waves that correspond to entertaining different mental states. Muhuhahaha! I think this might be the musical instrument of the future. Or at least the harmonica for the hand-brain coordination emphysemic (I'm speaking of course of those unfortunate aspiring musicians who have flippers for hands, metaphorically speaking). Brain oscillations can be translated by computer from electromagnetic waves into sound waves, and thus the deliberate manipulation of ones own brain waves by conscious will could be used to create a theremin-like device. I estimate it will take me only 10 hours of training, spread over two weeks, to train my brain to be able to modulate pitch and volume. Changing the timbre of the instrument would also be another useful control. Multiple simultaneous notes might be beyond the range of this technology. The real question is, once we take the stage, what do we do with our hands? Tambourine? I can see the newspaper advertisements now for the Phillips Theremin. The Encephalotron! The Brainophone! I seem to be full of get rich quick schemes these days.

So just before I got doused, I was having this conversation with a random Dutch guy, and it went like this: Him: "Statements that are generally applicable are more useful to think because they apply to more situations." Me: "Circularity is circular." I've been living in The Netherlands for five months now, and I have yet to feel fully culturally acclimated. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that almost every Dutch person speaks almost perfect English. But when I'm a crowd of people and everyone in it is speaking a language I don't yet understand I feel somewhat out of place. Many expat conversations involve complaining about Dutch culture, which I think is just poor assimilation + sour grapes. It would be interesting to do a study of the implicit attitudes of foreigners here who learn or do not learn Dutch. Uh oh, I fear I've bullshitted my way into a corner.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Status Update

Damn. I have to postpone that salami & cheese just long enough to write this introduction. There! Already partway done. But still so much more to go. And yet, I feel confident that I will finish. Progress is being made towards this goal with every passing second. I had a great weekend with Jan & Lilla in Bergen Op Zoom, The Netherlands. In the South of Holland*, Bergen Op Zoom was granted city status in 1266 and was once an important European trading port. Every year for Carnival the city's inhabitants dress up in curtains and handkerchiefs and silly hats and cram themselves into bars, get drunk on cheap beer, scarf down some greasy hamburgers with fried onions, and go back for more, all to the insistent oompah of traditional brass bands. Lilla and I lost Jan for awhile in the massive crowd, but the three of us reunited before the night was over and we danced around and acted silly.

*Holland, commonly thought to be a synonym for The Netherlands, is actually an area within The Netherlands.

Life sometimes feels like a string of constant realizations. Some take longer to develop than others. Autism research might benefit from more empirical study of the relative benefits of different types of musical therapy. The act of sharing intentions in a nonverbal context could make a crucial difference to a developing autist. Now come up with something else new. It's not always easy, but every moment is meaningful. Topic: synchronization of forehead raises in nonverbal communication, a conversational-analytic study of implicit turn-taking. Sometimes you have to wait for things to come to you. Never give up on writing. Take frequent breaks ;) Some things, people don't talk about. Never forget to love yourself. Life is a treasure hunt for beautiful ideas. Memory can be fleeting, you must fight to be awake in every moment in order to remember later. I'd rather have somebody else do the real work. Every rejection is a learning oppotunity. Every rejection sucks. Laziness is a universal. Try to win! Collect them all now!! :) :) Remember that time I ate some of your delicious food while you were out of town? It's because I missed you, all right? God. Haha or maybe I just want to steal your food ;) Girl, I just wanna get with you, and your sister, I think her name's Brabra. There's no such name as Brabra! Allow yourself to be creative. Make sense at least some of the time. Don't go into battle without your armor on. People don't all think the same. How much do you know about the arts, musics, religions and languages of the world? Animals think like we do in many respects (and we think more like them than we realize), but also have their own unique understanding of the world. Meat is murder, but aww it tastes so delicious! People do very unsympathetic things to each other, too:

"Sympathy and empathy are separate terms with some very important distinctions. Sympathy and empathy are both acts of feeling, but with sympathy you feel for the person; you’re sorry for them or pity them, but you don’t specifically understand what they’re feeling. Sometimes we’re left with little choice but to feel sympathetic because we really can’t understand the plight or predicament of someone else. It takes imagination, work, or possibly a similar experience to get to empathy.

Empathy can best be described as feeling with the person. Notice the distinction between for and with. To an extent you are placing yourself in that person’s place, have a good sense of what they feel, and understand their feelings to a degree. It may be impossible to be fully empathetic because each individual's reactions, thoughts and feelings to tragedy are going to be unique. Yet the idea of empathy implies a much more active process. Instead of feeling sorry for, you’re sorry with and have clothed yourself in the mantle of someone else’s emotional reactions." (

I can't imagine how you, the reader, must be feeling. This post has been going on for so long. I apologize.



PS: Salami & Cheese time, mmm.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: Beach House "Teen Dream"

Beach House's latest album, "Teen Dream" (2010) is nothing less than a masterpiece. It is rare these days to find an album that hold together as well as this. Even Radiohead's adored "OK Computer" leaves you skipping at least one track. Not so "Teen Dream." Beach House create an ethereal yet morose soundscape using simple but extended guitar phrases and copious oohing and ahhing. Also interesting is the fact that the first track of the album is named after an animal. This seems to be a trend of theirs.

The standout track on the album, "10 Mile Stereo," starts softly and builds slowly. The analog drum track doesn't start until after the 1 minute mark, and they leave you waiting for the chorus until almost minute 2. The repetition of three-note sequences in 4:4 creates a feeling of being fixed in space and time. This is a song that I cannot hear reach its end without a small amount of sadness.

Click here to listen.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mac Keystrokes

That's right, this is a Mac article. Sorry, Windows users, you'll have to wait until next week.

There are a number of useful keystrokes that you might have already heard about, but maybe a few you haven't, or maybe you know them but just don't use them that much. This is a cry for help. I am a keystroke. My name is command-tab. Please use me. I'll make your life so much better. I promise.

Go ahead, try command-tab. Hold the command key (aka the Open Apple key) and hit tab once. A list of icons pops up. These are your currently running applications. Keep holding command and then hit tab repeatedly until you get to the application you want to switch to. Then release. Ahh.

Other useful keystrokes include:
command-spacebar : search (Spotlight)
command-z : undo
command-x : cut
command-c : copy
command-v : paste
command-s : save
command-p : print
command-q : quit


Monday, January 24, 2011

One-Hit Wonderful

Good new songs are coming out all the time. A number of years ago I heard the Lilys' "With Candy" (2006) on Pandora. The song is a loosely organized beautiful mess. The drums during the verses never seen to line up where you think they should, and then the jangly guitars and lilting synth pads and vocals float above the chorus. The hipsters behind the counter mocked me subtly for buying the album, but I was undeterred. It turned out they were right. The album, I am sorry to say, was terrible.

This isn't the first (or last) time this has happened. Remember Peter Bjorn & John's "Young Folks" single? Catchy beat, haunting whistle solo, the song, though overplayed, was a masterpiece. But the album stank. I had a similar disappointing experience after hearing Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's "In This Home on Ice" (2005), and Bear In Heaven's "Lovesick Teenagers" (2009). Why is it that some bands can create a great song, but not a great album?

This past year, two songs stood out to me as dramatically better than the albums they came from: "Pumped Up Kicks" (2010), by Foster The People, and "When I'm With You" (2010), by Best Coast. "Pumped Up Kicks" begins with a simple yet seductive bass line, joined by tin-can vocals and a a chorus that goes:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
you'd better run better run
faster than my bullet

Best Coast's 2010 Crazy For You is probably the best album on the list, but overall it pales in comparison to the quality of the single, "When I'm With You." Bethany Cosentino's far away yet emotionally present vocals repeat the lines "When I'm with you, I have fun" almost to the point of insanity, but it works. This song draws you in to its own world of oozing cutesy sentiment with a rock timelessness that could only have been created now. Just don't buy the album before listening to it.

Click here to listen to the tracks mentioned in this article.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Joy of Search

Search is one of the most basic functions your computer provides. You often want to find a file you were working on, or a web page, or an email. Where computers fail is at integrating all of these search functions into one easy-to-use program. Google dominates internet search, whereas searching for local files is governed by your operating system, but what if I want to do both at once?

On a Mac, the local search feature is known as Spotlight. Click the magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of the screen, or simply press command-spacebar. Then start typing. Find recently opened documents, definitions for can even type "2+2" and "4" appears. Documents are searched both by file name and by contents, so if you forgot what you named a document, you can still find if only you can remember some of the words inside the document. Search results display as you type. Just click a result once to open it. (You can also press the up and down arrows and then return to choose a result.) Mac users: if you're not using Spotlight now, or not frequently, it's time to change your habits! Use it to open applications, rather than the Dock. Don't worry about where you saved your document, just Spotlight it! You'll see your efficiency go up the more you use Spotlight.

However, what if I also want to search the web, my Gmail, and my Google Docs? Currently, there's no way to do this. There is a cute little program you can download called Google Quick Search Box, which seems like it would be just the thing, but sadly, it isn't. Rather than showing you search results immediately, you can double-click to launch a Google search in your web browser. That's hardly faster than just going to the web browser and searching. Also, it doesn't integrate Gmail and Google Docs. Ugh. Come on, Google, give us what we want!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Electroencephalography, Eye tracking, and Robot Suits for Paraplegics

Assistive technology for paraplegia, locked-in syndrome, and other diseases which affect mobility is far behind where it could be. A Japanese company, Cyberdyne, has designed the HAL Robot Suit to help address this problem. Unfortunately, their Robot Suit only solves half of the problem. It senses the electrical activity in your limbs in order to know when to move, but if you can't move your limbs, that's no help at all. Another thing that immobilized people would very much like to be able to do is speak, and I shall consider this capacity as well.

Control Methods
Two methods for controlling a robot suit and speaking are: eye tracking, and EEG (electroencephalography). In eye tracking, a camera looks at your eye and figures out where you're looking. It's something we humans do all the time without any particular effort. We've evolved to be good at this, because it enables us to figure out what someone else is thinking about or intending to do. This technology is already being used to create assistive devices which enable immobilized people to speak by looking at words on a screen. But the technology is imperfect, and it is not being used to control robot suits. A system could be devised in which the patient uses video goggles instead of a fixed computer monitor. The patient could then look to a corner of the screen to switch between speech and movement modes. He or she could look at words to generate sentences to be spoken, or else look at areas of the world in order to tell the robot suit to locomote there.

The second proposed method for controlling a robot suit and generating speech is EEG. A shower cap filled with electrodes is placed on the head, and the electrical fields generated by brain activity are measured. This could be even more promising a method than eye tracking, as it holds the promise to literally read one's thoughts and transform them into actions. But there are several problems with this approach. First, we don't yet know enough about how EEG signals correspond to particular thought patterns. What's more, EEG isn't very sensitive to the particular region of the brain that the electrical activity is being generated from. How can these problems be overcome.

1. Reverse Correlation
First we need to figure out which patterns of action and stimulation correspond to which patterns of brain activity. Clever scientists have begun this project, by showing different types of stimuli while recording with EEG. However, this approach is limited by the classes of stimuli that experimenters can think up, and neglects the importance of action. Another approach would be to expose test subjects to a barrage of stimuli, and have them perform a large set of actions, and then use reverse correlation, aka intersubject synchronization, to figure out which actions and stimuli correspond to which patterns of brain activity.

2. Genetic Algorithms
But how do we really know that these patterns of brain activity are for these patterns of action and stimulation? A novel way to test such claims is with a genetic algorithm. A genetic algorithm is a computer science technique, inspired by natural selection, for searching through a problem space for fitter and fitter solutions. Here's how this would work:

a. Begin with an initial population of noise images
b. Evaluate each image based on how strongly it elicits a particular EEG response
c. Fitter images survive and reproduce to produce a next generation of images
d. Offspring images are created by mating the fittest images of the previous generation, and mutations are allowed to creep in, to encourage evolution
e. Over time, the population of images evolves to look like the type of stimuli that that pattern of brain activity is for

Connecting the Dots
Having identified a set of EEG patterns that correspond to particular actions and sensations, we can then use these as control signals for moving a robot suit and generating speech. If eye tracking is used simultaneously, the control software might be able to have a pretty good idea of where the patient intends to move or what he/she intends to say.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Grooveshark: A Review

Sure you can use the internet to look at cute photos of puppies, or cats doing silly things. But some of us want to use it for something productive, like, um, listening to music. Grooveshark is a web site for listening to music online. It's currently the best thing out there, and I use it all the time, but it still kind of sucks.

Before I tout its features and criticize its flaws, let me begin by explaining why this review isn't a "shootout" between Grooveshark and its competitors (e.g., Spotify,, Pandora). Spotify requires a download, and twists your arm to pay them. requires an extensive login process, and Pandora is neither available outside the U.S., nor does it let you choose particular songs to play!

Grooveshark is the only one of the pack where you can go to the site, search for a song, and play it, all without logging in or downloading anything. You can easily create playlists of songs for a party or just to suit your mood. If you create a login, you can save your playlists for later. Finally, for the terminally lazy, you can turn the "Radio" on, and Grooveshark will choose songs for you to hear.

Grooveshark Radio
Radio is the most disappointing feature Grooveshark has to offer. I was listening to the Bee Gees, and then I put on a few Blondie songs, and then I put on Night Nurse off of Dean & Britta's L'Avventura (yes, that's my sister's band, and yes, they're good). I didn't feel like picking more songs just then, so I turned on the Radio in Grooveshark, expecting to hear more indie pop. Instead, I got Styx and Air Supply. Pretty comical really.

Pandora hardly does better. First of all, as previously mentioned, you can't search for and play a specific song. Second, the recommendations they provide are just as hilarious as Grooveshark's. Pandora hired a crack team of music experts to describe each song in their library in terms of major or minor key, tempo, instrumentation, and the like. Unfortunately, just because I'm listening to Miles Davis doesn't mean I want to hear some Kenny G. Actually, I haven't been able to use Pandora in awhile because I live in the Netherlands, and Pandora doesn't allow me to use it here, but that's not the end of the world. Grooveshark is way better.

How to use Grooveshark
When you first arrive on the site, you are presented with the option to search for music. Search for whatever you like, they probably have it. Now the situation gets slightly more complicated. There's a little arrow with a plus sign icon to the left of each track title. Click the song to add it to your playlist -- the song will now start playing automatically.

Ok, so now your song is playing. How do you search for and choose the next song to play? Click on the magnifying glass icon by the Grooveshark logo in the upper-left, and search. Once again, click the arrow with the plus sign to the left of a song to add the song to your playlist. Now that song will play next.

Now let's try the Radio. Where it says "Radio:Off" in the lower-right, click there and switch it on. Now the next song that plays will be chosen by Grooveshark. If you don't like it, you can always click the skip track icon in the lower-left. A lot to remember, you say? The interface becomes fairly easy to deal with after repeated use, but I agree, it is clumsy and imperfect. People of my parents' generation find even iTunes difficult to use, and Grooveshark is no iTunes.

Then why use it?
Because you can play all the music in the world for free. iTunes looks nice, but features win. There are a number of reasons to prefer Grooveshark. On iTunes, you have to buy the music before you can listen to it, and the selection is limited. There are radio stations, but they are not customizable. And what if you travel and you don't have your library with you? Other features include the ability to share playlists via email or Facebook, and the ability to upload your own mp3 collection and then access it from anywhere.

But the iTunes user interface is better. For this reason, I have designed a new user-interface for Grooveshark, and I hope that they use it, because I think more people would benefit from the site if they did.

Features of the Interface
•Easier to use search and playlists
•Search is always available, and doesn't require going to the search page
•Same thing with the current playlist
•EQ and Compression, and easier to use volume and control buttons
•Adding songs to playlists or playing them is now accomplished by a text link, obviating the need to learn Grooveshark's idiosyncratic icons

Other Features
These are features that should be added to Grooveshark, but are not obvious from the interface I designed.
•Quickly fade out when you skip a track, rather than cutting off abruptly
•Show the list of suggested next songs more than 1 song in advance
•Save and load playlists by clicking the "Playlists" header
•Sync the last beat of the current song with the first beat of the next song and do a quick crossfade (optional)


PS: Here is a Grooveshark link to some music that I've been recording for the past two years.