Cyber Culture: One man's attempt to find the diamonds in the rough of YouTube comments
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 18 October 2012
WTF? YouTube's head of product, Dror Shimshowitz, revealed over the summer that his colleagues are working on ways to improve the standard of comments on the site. LOL. Of course, if you're the kind of person who feels compelled to act upon messages urging you to "repost this comment below three videos or you will die in two days", or you rant about Mossad underneath innocuous pop videos, you probably see YouTube as an essential opinion forum.
But it's long been derided as a battleground for the anonymously witless; a Firefox plug-in called Comment Snob renders invisible any YouTube comments that satisfy various criteria – number of spelling mistakes, excessive or limited use of capital letters or punctuation and so on. It doesn't legislate for literate idiots, but it's a pretty effective filter.
The Canadian film-maker Mark Slutsky is, however, no comment snob. He describes himself as being "fascinated by the medium", and has launched a blog at sadyoutube.com where he picks out rare "nuggets of humanity" he has found on the site. Recent entries include a comment under "Telstar" by The Tornadoes', pictured, from someone who tells the story of how, at the age of 12, he was the sole witness of a car crash and heard the song playing on the vehicle's radio as he discovered the dead bodies. Another explains how a particular Rush song is hugely important to him as it was the first song he heard after coming out of six years of isolation in a Communist prison. Belly laughs are thin on the ground, but it's a reminder that YouTube isn't all WTF and LOL.
And for this we can all be hugely thankful.
Art.sy uses data science to suggest paintings you may like… but is that really art?
I don't know much about art. I'm not even sure what I like. But this deficiency may be remedied by the launch last week of art.sy, a recommendation engine that's been described as "data science meets art history". The start-up has spent the past two years raising a few million dollars in venture capital and constructing a taxonomy system to categorise the world's art. Some 20,000 works are on the site, thanks to partnerships with museums and galleries across the world; each work is assigned a certain number of "genotypes" – perhaps concerning its age, subject, use of symbolism, colour and so on – with experts ranking each genotype from 1 to 100. This enables the site to offer an "if you like this, then you might like this" service, much in the same way that Pandora has done with music.
Of course, there are those in the art world who have voiced concern about the reductive nature of such a process. After all, artists spend their lives attempting to defy categorisation and mark their differences with others, and then a website comes along to state that their work is "a bit like Jeff Koons". But for anyone curious about art it's fascinating; its aim is not necessarily to be exhaustive (the Google Art Project is nearly twice the size) but merely helpful. So if you're fond of the abstract expressionism of Camino Real (II) by Cy Twombly, pictured, art.sy will guide you towards other abstract expressionist works by Jonathan Lasker or Grace Hartigan. Or if you just like the fact that it's a bit orange, you can see paintings that are similarly orange. Different brush strokes for different folks.
Apple maps, a month on – still as useful as a chocolate fireguard
Owing to poor time management on my part I'm writing this on holiday in France, where Apple's much-criticised Maps app has managed to demonstrate one of its advantages – perhaps its only advantage: data efficiency. My network charges me £10 for every 50MB of data I use when abroad, and with Maps' vector-based mapping system using around 80 per cent less data than the version of Google Maps I was using a month ago, it's been cheap to explore the local area using it. Even if there's a nagging worry that it'll send me up a cliff-face to reach the local supermarché.
Apple's app is so far behind Google's in terms of search technology that you wonder whether it'll ever catch up. Search for my neighbourhood of "Tooting" and it directs me to a cake decorator in Hackney, and if I specify "Tooting SW17" it reports "Not Found". The same goes for the data set; the Google Maps team merges imperfect data from hundreds of sources to establish the best likelihood of the map being correct. Apple's data, however, appears to rely on user corrections to improve errors, but users seem keener on complaining rather than helping, whether it's about multiple versions of the same landmark being in the wrong postcode, or defunct businesses situated 20 doors away from where they used to be.
Feeling vaguely altruistic, I just spent 20 minutes reorganising the Tooting area, including renaming "South Thames Collage" so it sounds more like an institution of learning and less like a collaborative artwork. My eyes are now peeled to see how long it takes for those changes to be updated in the app.
For 3D to be super we need to make like Clark Kent and lose the specs
It's a pattern we seem doomed to repeat: to become briefly enthralled with the idea of 3D then quickly feel lukewarm about it – a bit like a holiday romance, or using a cross-trainer in early January.
Ultimately, we don't want to strap on a pair of special specs to experience entertainment, no matter how sleekly styled they might be – and particularly if we're already wearing a pair of spectacles in the first place. In a moment of honesty last week, Fergal Gara, the UK head of Sony Computer Entertainment, admitted our 3D ambivalence in an interview with Eurogamer. "Consumers decide how relevant it is," he said. "It's fair to say that consumers have decided it's not hugely important at this time."
This echoes the words of the president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, who told this newspaper in an interview back in July that it's "too much" to have to strap on a pair of 3D specs. Colossal sums have been splurged by media companies in the past couple of years to try to persuade us of the added value of 3D, but it seems that the "wow" factor has become more of an "oh" factor. Perhaps the last chance to seduce us will be when (or if) a convincing spectacles-less 3D solution is found, but as Gara said in the same interview, "I don't have a firm view on whether that will happen."
Rap Genius turns from deciphering Lethal Bizzle to legal bizzle
If you're unfamiliar with the argot of American rap music you may have stumbled across Rap Genius, a wiki-style website that crowdsources translations of phrases such as Chuck D's (left) "My 98's a-boomin' with a trunk o' funk", thus bringing clarity and meaning to the rap-listening experience.
But in the past few weeks, it's taken a sideways move into legalese, with the site's members turning their attention to deciphering iTunes' terms of service. The technology guru Clay Shirky has weighed in, underlining (for example) the fact that Americans are prohibited from using iTunes outside the US, and that Apple has the right to check up on where they're using it. Next up on Rap Genius, if you please: Ulysses, the Digital Economy Act and Ikea wardrobe-assembly innstructions.
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