Gizmo Watch June 2007

Sound Advice

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What Was I Thinking?
Computers may not be able to make decisions for you (yet), but they can sharpen your judgment. By James Fallows. (June 2007)

Online music-matching sites have tried for years to suggest new songs or artists you’ll like based on ones you’ve previously chosen.

One of the earliest was MusicMatch.com, founded by a San Diego entrepreneur named Dennis Mudd. It familiarized users with the idea that if you told it what music you like—Scarlatti, the Beach Boys, Ludacris—it could create a stream of related songs and artists, often ones you didn’t know.

Three years ago, Mudd sold his company to Yahoo, which made it part of Yahoo Music Jukebox. Now two of the best-known services for music matching are Pandora and Last.fm. Pandora’s recommendations are based on its “Music Genome Project,” which analyzes and compares the properties of each work—bass line, instruments used, and on down a list said to include 400 items. Last.fm uses “social intelligence” to create recommendations—people who like the Arcade Fire will probably also like Radiohead.

Mudd has now founded a new company, Slacker, which is supposed to make personalized music available anywhere. A satellite service will broadcast it to a system you can set up in your car; the company will soon sell an iPod-like portable device that can cache songs while it’s connected to the Internet. The service will be free if you’re willing to listen to some ads—or, for $7.50 a month, it will be ad-free and allow users to store songs they particularly like, and skip the ones they don’t.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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