Pop Smarts


At the moment, my iTunes library has just grown over the magic five-digit mark: 10,000 tracks. Or 51.9 GB. Or most importantly, far more than I can casually browse.

I like iTunes' "Smart Playlists" function and use it a lot. I have more smart playlists than "regular" playlists in fact, mostly because they can be used as inputs to other smart playlists.

For example, I have a smart playlist called "-No Talk" that eliminates anything tagged as "Books & Spoken," "Dialogue," "Sound Effects," and so forth, and I usually use is as an initial restrictor when building playlists based, say, on how many stars a track has been rated and so forth (examples below).

Smart playlists are handy in this way for either paring-down or joining tracks that iTunes doesn't see are connected by itself: combining Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service into a "Ben G" list for example, or collecting all the tracks relating to Beethoven, or Ben Folds and his various ensembles (including Shatner).

Lists based on lists are the only way you can combine "logical and" and "logical or" operators on conditions (called "all" or "any" in the smart playlists dialogue) — for example, if I want to get all tracks labelled "Pop" or "Rock" (by genre or potentially by a "hidden" field like "Grouping" or "Comments") but none with a ranking of lower than four stars, I need to use at least two smart playlists (simplified here as an example):

  • "-PopRock"
    Genre contains "Pop"
    Genre contains "Rock"
    Comments contain "pop"
  • "Fave PopRock"
    Playlist is "-PopRock"
    My Rating is greater than ***

Combining and intersecting playlists and conditions in this manner is probably the only way I'd actually ever get to hear a lot of the music squirreled-away in my iPod at this point. I have a number of playlists based on variations of one I call "neglect":

  • "Neglect"
    Playlist is "-No Talk"
    My rating is greater than ***
    Limit to 50 tracks ordered by least recently played

In plainer English: music tracks that I've rated as ones I like, but haven't played in a long time. Variations on the idea usually focus on genres, or intersect with some other playlist or another.

With the multiplicity of playlists calling other playlists, I've tried to keep some order among them in the pulldown menus (which are alphabetized) by using extra characters like "-" and "." in the names of lists that are meant purely as "abstract inputs" (like "-No Talk").

One set of playlists is based on a root playlist called "Bunch of Stuff I Like Right Now" — I stick in new albums as I get them, or stuff I know I'd like to hear more often but not based on its star rating. And likewise I may remove whatever based on... well, whatever. Basing a bunch of different playlists on the one lets me explore new and favorite music in novel ways while only having to maintain a single list "by hand."

Lists based on that one are variations on my standards, with relatively descriptive names: "Bunch o Faves," "Bunch o Neglect," etc. Like many computer-related topics, most of the interesting things happen when the structures of algorithms collide and combine with the unstructured intents of the user (me).

Everyone who uses iTunes for a while seems to have their own organizing scheme: I ran into one woman DJ a bit ago who kept all her tracks indexed by the comment field, and had inserted the BPM counts of every track in there so that she could be sure to build lists with consistent rhythms (more work than I'd ever put in, to be sure).

As flexible as it is, I still often wish for more: particularly conditions that might aggregate values or relate them, so that I could create selections like "albums that contain at least two tracks that I've rated as *****" and so forth. There doesn't seem to be any way to really manage the relationships of groups of tracks, only (in limited ways, such as date stamps or alphabetic order) between individual tracks.

(Added)And how could I forget regular expressions, or at least wildcards?

Maybe someone knows of tools that could piggyback more functionality into playlists?

Some other smart playlists that I've found useful to balance familiarity and variety:

  • Introductions
    Track # is 1
    Playlist is "No Talk"
    Limit to 1000 track (or some other large number, effectively infinite) ordered by least-recently added
  • Numbers
    Title contains "1"
    Title contains "2"
    Title contains "3"
    Title contains "4"
    Title contains "5"
    Title contains "6"
    Title contains "7"
    Title contains "8"
    Title contains "9"
    Title contains "0"
    Album contains "1"
    Album contains "2"
    Album contains "3"
    Album contains "4"
    Album contains "5"
    Album contains "6"
    Album contains "7"
    Album contains "8"
    Album contains "9"
    Album contains "0"
  • Calculated
    Playlist is "Numbers"
    Title does not contain "1983" (Or other dates)
    Album does not contain "Disc" (as in "Disc 1" or "Disc 2")
  • Most played yet unrated
    Playlist is "-No Talk"
    My rating is (none)
    Limit to 50 tracks based on most often played
  • Most played but not lateley
    Playlist is "-No Talk"
    Not played in the last three months
    Limit to 50 based on most-played
  • Oldest Unplayed
    Playlist is "-No Talk"
    Play count is zero
    Limit to 50 indexed on least recently added

If anyone has suggestions for their own unusual or cool playlists, let me know — I'm easily entertained by this sort of thing, heh.

As an aside, it's astounding to me that no matter which track I can pick randomly, once it starts playing, I can most always remember it — and such memories usually are embedded among others such as some location where I heard it, who I might have been with at the time, and so forth — the music very often serving not just its own function but as a trigger to other, often emotionally-based, recollections. To me it's a vivid illustration of the fluid character and complexity of memory — how we are not just tape recorders and cameras, but much more (and sometimes less).

Posted July 30, 2006 | Comments (0)



When I was a teenager my mom bought me the standard-for-the-time poster of Farrah Fawcett, to pin up on the wall of my room. Maybe she just thought it was in fashion, or was worried I might not know what a girl was. Not for me to say. It seemed okay, but nothing about the Charlies Angels really worked for me anyway.

At about the same time I was babysitting for a family across the street. The father was a photographer, and once their kids were asleep I could look at his photo books. Thanks to him I picked through every last volume of the Time Life Library of Photography. Somewhere in those pages I ran across the photo above: Avedon's Duchess of Alba. Seeing it still brings me back to Kent Kobersteen's family room, where I first saw it.

2045019_1_230_400.jpgI was flumoxed. She was not of this world, separate and existing only there in the photo. I recall thinking that this was less a person and more some sort of chess piece. From them on, whenever I would babysit that volume would be one of the first ones to be viewed.

In reality, the Duchess, unlike most people, was not the sort of person likely to be swayed by photography's easy likeness. Her rank meant that she was just as likely to be painted for some number of state representations anyway, just as had previous Duchesses of Alba — most famouly by Goya. And while Avedon's portrait made her face a familiar image to many Americans, it probably had very little effect on her already considerable social standing.

Unlike most famous people, the Duchess of Alba was not a celebrity. She was already celebrated without photography.

There were some other images in that row of black and gray photo books. I still remember a fantastic dress, I think shot by Penn, with billowing scalloped sleeves. Or other Avedon standards, like a leaping Jean Shrimpton.

Marilyn63_bara.jpgAnother Avedon series that has resonated through my memory, this time from Life's weekly pages in my parent's living room rather than Life's books, was one that I never would have recognized as his work (I only discovered its origins many years later). Involving Marilyn Monroe disguised as various fim stars of earlier years, it was all in color and even now I can still recall seeing her impersonation of Theda Bara, staring out of the page through heavy eye makeup. Seeing that series led, I think, to my first realizations about deliberate photographic color styling.

garbo2.jpgWhile I didn't fall for Farrah at the same time as my fascination with a thirty-year-old photo of a distant Spanish woman, I soon discovered Garbo, even more removed across time, an even-more futile object of photographic desire. She was by then a very old and reclusively-invisible woman. Heck, she might have been dead already. I wasn't interested in any of that.

I went to the library and pored through books of Hurrell & Bull. Rode the bus across Minneapolis to the Uptown Theatre to see revivals of Ninotchka and Camille. Anything to see My Girl Greta.

(BTW, I'd be keen to know more about the photo here. The costume is from Queen Christina, probably from the same photo session as the image seen on the joint U.S./Sweden Greta Garbo stamp of a decade ago (that one is more somber, and the hair fully covers her eye). Anyone with a pointer to its source? I've only found this hand-colored variation on the web.)

hep.jpgBy the time I approached college I had another old-movie crush on the side, but was also starting to recognize the curious effects of celebrity photography in a more abstract way. I recall think of how one late night, when I'd stayed up to watch Anna Christie, thinking about the power of mathematical models, of how a complex matrix of voltages and patterns of colored dots could give rise to an image that still invoked emotional attachment.

More than a simple emotional attachment, it's certainly true that my desire at that age to be a photographer (specifically, a fashion photographer) was driven to a great degree by a desire to somehow push past the glossy page, to somehow inhabit the world of those photos. And likewise my growing interest in films and filmmaking, which eventually dragged me far from the Uptown. Along the way I started learning about more than just the arresting faces. I grew familiar with the names of the unseen people behind the pictures: Avedon, Penn, Billy Wilder; and down through the range of media specialties, Kevin Aucoin or Gordon Willis or Yoko Kanno and more. The mystery dissipated somewhat to be replaced by a different sort of fascination that's stayed with me to the present.

And the impossible has retained its appeal through the world. People have asked me (or opined to me) about Aki, our heroine in Final Fantasy. We made some pinups of her, one of them graced the cover of a Maxim special issue. Why was she there, some people wondered? No guy could really want Aki, she didn't exist. How could we compare her, say, to Jessica Alba, who also appeared in that same issue? Jessica Alba was a valid object of desire, she was flesh and blood.

But by that time I already knew better. Jessica Alba, like Aki — like Greta, like Uma, like Hep, like Gwyneth — is an image. The flesh and blood portion is tiny compared to the image held in the mind of (millions of) viewers — and the differences in likelihood between ever actually touching the fictional Aki and the semi-fictional Alba are vanishingly small.

Posted July 27, 2006 | Comments (0)



It's been too hot all week to process anything. The tap water is still close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Three rolls today in Foma F09 ("Ur-Rodinal") 1::20 — two rolls of Neopan 1600 exposed @ISO 800 and overdeveloped (8 minutes instead of 5 for normal ISO1600 images), and one roll of Acros exposed @ISO 50 instead of 100 and processed for 11 minutes (instead of somewhere around 7). The aim was high contrast, and the Acros negs definitely show it, but the Neopan 1600 negs seem only a tad darker than usual. A surprise.

I'll be heading to Boston for Siggraph over the weekend. Probable kit will be the same as my last trip, the LX1 and the RF645. Toting them along with my heavy (but still sweet) Dell laptop is quite a load....

Posted July 26, 2006 | Comments (0)



...at least that's what the kids would have you believe. This one's digital of course and made quickly based on looking at a scan of a real (modern) dag (by Mike Robinson), trying to suss-out some appropriate curves and such entirely by eye. Not perfect, but learn by doing.

Posted July 18, 2006 | Comments (0)

Memory Pool


Six rolls Tri-X, two rolls Acros, rolls Neopan 1600 in Fomadon F09 (Rodinal formula) 1+40, then two rolls of Neopan 1600 stand-developed in F09 1+80 for an hour.

Obviously this shot isn't mine, but I've decided to start including some shots that I've felt strongly about, shots that I think have had a direct personal effect. Unlike Roland Barthes I don't think first of family photos. Neither is it some list of "my favorites" or "greatest" shots. They're just shots that changed the way I thought about pictures and picture-making.

Over the past couple of days I've come to recall and identify so many shots that really connected to me, really stayed in my head and defined or especially re-defined what a picture can be. I've scribbled-out a little list in my personal notebook, and at the head of that list is W. Eugene Smith.

My parents always had Life magazine around and its influence on my early awareness of pictures can't be understated. I was probably twelve years old when I saw Smith's pieta, "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath." At that age my initial reaction was terror. As much as I came to admire the radiant love of Tomoko's mother in this shot I can still remember the twelve-year-old shock and fear of drowning helpless in the black, black water.

I was already interested in photography, but was distracted more by equipment than by pictures — this photo is one of the earliest I can remember that grabbed me like this one did (still does). The smoke, the pool of light and the encroaching claustrophic black.

I had no idea what kind of film or equipment Smith used — to this day I don't, and don't really care.

Posted July 17, 2006 | Comments (0)

Flick flake


Over the past month or two I've pretty-well given up on trying to make any sense of my flickr contacts list. Too many people listing me, too many people whose photos I want to see.

I'd previously made some progress by using robots — fake user accounts — to sort things. In the end simplicity wins out, so now people and tags and topics all just get fed into my bloglines account same as everything else (or for the RSS-less, into del.icio.us).

A definite advantage to this is that RSS feeds make it easier to keep track of photos posted to flickr group pools, since the official "your groups" page flags updates to the discussions in those groups but not the picture pools — even though the most interesting groups (visually) often have empty discussions.

Digging around I came across some groups that I shouldn't have been surprised to find — lots of groups based on numbers games, such as groups racing to create the largest group pools in the shortest time (e.g., photos = noise. LOTS of noise), or have the most members, etc. The internet way, as ever (as was the TV way before it) is to emphasize volume over critical judgement, a trend that's been well-recognized since at least the industrial revolution.

And I found some groups that attempt to extract personal prestige out of high volume, by requiring a minimum number of page views on a photo (or minimum number of "favorite" tags) before that photo can be added to the group. Groups for photos that have been viewed 50 times, 200, 1000, 5000.... and so forth.

I subscribed to several of these to see what sort of level of traffic they'd have, and what sorts of photos.

My hunch, sight unseen, was that these groups would be populated with what I think of as the flickr house style — that is, photos that read well (or best!) when shrunk and center-cropped to a 75x75-pixel square. Specifically: contrasty, bright colors, preferably with a cute young woman, subject right in the middle of the frame, always accesible and easy to read. Oh, and lots of tag whoring (adding provocative tags like nude and luscious — even when there's no apparent connection to anything in the photo), plenty of zealous logrolling (you mark my photos favorites so that I can mark yours), and broad, broad, broadcasting to every group under the sun, especially groups with names like Sexy Girls and Gorgeous.

I wasn't disappointed, then — it's exactly what I found, with the only exception being a good-sized chunk of snapshot photos from Iraq hiding in the 5000-views group.

What I was a bit surprised and disturbed to find, however, were the boobs.

Obviously, attractive women were expected, and generally they have boobs, but there were a surprisingly large number of extremely popular shots of just boobs — fully-clothed usually, usually a low neckline, and no face at all. What's more, as often as not the boobs would apparently belong to someone not even known by the photographer, who probably didn't even know their photos were being taken — the photo descriptions saying things like "sexy random woman on subway in Barcelona" and so forth.

Remember, these aren't just common — they are the most-viewed photos on the entire system.

Think about that, next time someone yells at you while you're shooting because photographers are all a bunch of pervs. According to yahoo, they're right.

Posted July 08, 2006 | Comments (0)


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