Posts Tagged hacking
What better way to spend a weekend on the French Riviera then in a conference room filled with food, soda, coffee and fellow coders and designers hacking on music! That’s what I and 26 other hackers did at the MIDEM Music Hack Day. Hackers came from all over the world to attend and participate in this 3rd annual hacking event to show what kind of of creative output can flow from those that are passionate about music and technology.
Unlike a typical Music Hack Day, this hack day has very limited space so only those with hardcore hacking cred were invited to attend. Hackers were from a wide range of companies and organizations including SoundCloud, Songkick, Gracenote, Musecore, We Make Awesome Sh.t, 7Digital, Reactify, Seevl, Webdoc, MuseCore, REEA, MTG-UPF, and Mint Digital and The Echo Nest. Several of the hackers were independent. The event was organized by Martyn Davies of Hacks & Bants along with help from the MIDEM organizers.
The hacker space provided for us is at the top of the Palais – which is the heart of MIDEM and Cannes. The hacking space has a terrace that overlooks the city, giving an excellent place to unwind and meditate while trying to figure out how to make something work.
The hack day started off with a presentation by Martyn explaining what a Music Hack Day is for the general MIDEM crowd. After which, members of the audience (the Emilys and Amelies) offered some hacking ideas in case any of the hyper-creative hackers attending the Hack Day were not able to come up with their own ideas.
After that, hacking started in force. Coders and designers paired up, hacking designs were sketched and github repositories were pulled and pushed.
The MIDEM Hack Day is longer than your usual Music Hack Day. Instead of the usual 24 hours, hackers have 45 hour to create their stuff. The extra time really makes a difference (especially if you hack like you only have 24 hours).
We had a few visitors during the course of the weekend. Perhaps the most notable was Robert Scoble. We gave him a few demos. My impression (based upon 3 minutes of interaction, so it is quite solid), is that Robert doesn’t care too much about music. (While I was giving him a demo of a very early version of Girl Talk in a Box, Robert reached out and hit the volume down key a few times on my computer. The effrontery of it all!). A number of developers gave Robert demos of their in-progress hacks, including Ben Fields, who at the time, didn’t know he was talking to someone who was Internet-famous.
As day turned to evening, the view from our terrace got more exciting. The NRJ Awards show takes place in the Palais and we had an awesome view of the red carpet. For 5 hours, the sounds of screaming teenagers lining the red carpet added to our hacking soundtrack. Carly Rae, Taylor Swift, One Direction and the great one (Psy) all came down the red carpet below us, adding excitement (and quite a bit of distraction) to the hack.
Yes, Psy did the horsey dance for us. Life is complete.
Finally, after 45 hours of hacking, we were ready to give our demos to the MIDEM audience.
There were 18 hacks created during the weekend. Check out the full list of hacks. Some of my favorites were:
- VidSwapper by Ben Fields. - swaps the audio from one video into another, syncronizing with video hit points along the way.
- RockStar by Pierre-loic Doulcet - RockStar let you direct a rockstar Band using Gesture.
- Miri by Aaron Randal - Miri is a personal assistant, controlled by voice, that specialises in answering music-related questions
- Ephemeral Playback by Alastair Porter - Ephemeral Playback takes the idea of slow music and slows it down even further. Only one song is active at a time. After you have listened to it you must share it to another user via twitter. Once you have shared it you can no longer listen to it.
- Music Collective by the Reactify team - A collaborative music game focussing on the phenomenon of how many people, when working together, form a collective ‘hive mind’.
- Leap Mix by Adam Howard – Control audio tracks with your hands.
It was fun demoing my own hack: Girl Talk in a Box – it is not everyday that a 50 something guy gets to pretend he’s Skrillex in front of a room full of music industry insiders.
All in all, it was a great event. Thanks to Martyn and MIDEM for making us hackers feel welcome at this event. MIDEM is an interesting place, where lots of music business happens. It is rather interesting for us hacker-types to see how this other world lives. No doubt, thanks to MIDEM Music Hack Day synergies were leveraged, silos were toppled, and ARPUs were maximized. Looking forward to next year!
I’m at Music Apps Hack Weekend doing my favorite thing: hacking on music. I’ve just finished my hack called Boil the Frog. Boil the Frog is a Spotify App that will create playlists that gradually take you from one music style to another. It is like the proverbial story of the frog in the pot of water. If you heat the water gradually, the frog won’t notice and will happily sit in the pot until it becomes frog stew. With Boil the Frog you can do the same thing musically. Create a playlist that gradually takes your pre-teen from Miley Cyrus to Miles Davis, or perhaps more perversely the Kenny G fan to Cannibal Corpse.
To build the app I built an artist similarity graph of 100,000 of the most popular artists. I use The Echo Nest artist similarity to connect each artist to its four nearest neighbors. To find the path between any two artists I use a bidirectional Dijkstra shortest path algorithm. Most paths can be computed in less than 100ms.
The Spotify Apps API is the perfect hacking platform. You can build a Spotify app that has full access to the vast Spotify music catalog and artwork, along with access to the listener’s catalog. Since the Spotify Apps run in an embedded browser all of your web app programming skills apply. You can use jQuery, make calls to JSON APIs, use HTML 5 canvas. It is all there. Spotify has done a really good job putting together this platform. The only downside is that, unlike the web, it is hard to actually release Spotify apps, but the Spotify team is working to make this easier. I’d love to release Boil the Frog because it is really fun to make playlists that bring you from one music style to another. It is interesting to see what musical neighborhoods you wander through on your way. For instance, I made a Kenny G to Cannibal Corpse playlist. To get there, the playlist brought me from easy listening, to movie soundtracks and then through video game soundtracks to get to the heavy metal world. Cool stuff. If you want to see a playlist between two artists let me know in the comments and I’ll create and share the playlist with you.
I made a video of Boil the Frog in action. Check it out:
Update: I’ve just pushed the client code out to github: https://github.com/plamere/boilthefrog
There will be some opportunities for organized hardware hacking at this weekend’s Music Hack Day Boston in the form of afternoon workshops. All the details are on the Music Hack Day Workshops page. Here’s just a teaser to wet your appetite.
Electric Eels Workshop by Noah Vawter with Justin from Burnkit 2600. This project introduces a mobile platform for melodic and percussive electronic music instruments. It encourages playing them more like traditional instruments- electrical energy is produced on a note-by-note basis from its players’ movements.
Atari Punk Console Workshop – Jimmie Rodgers will lead a workshop on building Atari Punk Consoles. The Atari Punk Console is a simple synthesizer with a wide range of sounds. It is so named because the sounds generated are similar to those of the early Atari consoles.
Pen Plotter & Chiplotle workshop - While not exactly hardware hacking, it is definitely old school. Douglas Repetto and Brian Whitman will show you how to plot your beautiful music visualizations or whatever else on quite possibly the sexiest of all paper output mechanisms — early 1980s HPGL pen plotters!
Programmable Audio Effects in a Sketch Environment with LeafLabs’ Maple – by Okie Williams. In this 2 hour workshop you will learn how you can use Maple with a little extra circuitry (op-amps, resistors, capacitors) to program your own audio effects in an Arduino-like sketch environment and focus mainly on programming effects instead of hardware.
Last week I did a skype interview with a reporter from Time who was interested in the backstory on how the 2009 Time 100 Poll was hacked. They’ve put it all together into a nifty video segment: When 4Chan gamed the TIME 100
Last week, on the Hype machine blog, Anthony indicated his increasing frustration in how easily charts could be manipulated – Anthony wanted a better way, one that was transparent, and gave more influence to the influential. Anthony’s solution was to create a twitter chart that is based on the twittering activity of Hype Machine songs. In this new chart Twitterers with more followers have more influence than those with few.
A number of commenters on Anthony’s blog pointed out how it would be easy for a single very popular twitter user to influence the charts. And that is exactly what Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch did. Erick used the power of TechCrunch for evil.
With one tweet from the TechCrunch twitter account (with its nearly 1 million-person reach) he was able to put Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give you Up at the top of the Hype Machine Twitter chart. Erick writes “The Hype Machine’s formula is flawed. No single person should be able to affect the rankings so easily“.
It’s arguable whether or not this is a dishonest manipulation of the charts. TechCrunch really does have a reach of 1 million people – and so by tweeting Rick Astley they are potentially exposing those millions to this song. However, in reality, people don’t read TechCrunch for music recommendations – TechCruch is just not a music tastemaker (sorry Erick). A tweet by TechCrunch counts much less than a tweet by Indie music guide Pitchfork.
Update - Note that the spammers are now starting to recognize the twitterverse as a place that they can target. If you have $27 you can get the twittertrafficmachine to get you 20K followers in a month:
Anthony should adjust how he scores a tweet to not only include the reach of the tweet but to also include the music reputation of the source. It is not as easy to determine the music reputation as the number of followers for a source, but it is much more important. Some indicators that a tweet has real influences are whether people actually click on the link and listen to the song and whether the poster actually listens to music, especially new music, before it gets popular.
I suspect Anthony will be tweaking his scoring algorithms soon to make the charts better reflect what real music listeners are listening to, not just what popular people are listening to.
Update: Anthony has responded in he comments.
The very popular blog aggregator The Hype Machine has a ‘Popular Page‘ that shows the tracks that have been most favorited in the last 3 days. This is a great way to find out what the music zeitgeist is. However, Anthony (Mr. Hype Machine) recently discovered that a number of highly favorited artists seemed to have reached the popular page by nefarious means. According to Anthony, it appears that a number of artists became popular when many presumably fake accounts, created from the same IP address in a very short period of time all favorited a single artist in an apparent effort to get the artist to appear on the popular page. This type of hacking is not too surprising – whenever you have a chart or poll that relies on ‘the wisdom of crowds’ you are susceptible to the shill who will try to manipulate the chart in order to promote their interests. We see this in online polls, social news sites and popular music sites.
When Anthony became aware of how the Hype Machine was being manipulated, he and the rest of the Hype machine team fought back, instituting a Captcha mechanism to prevent automated account creation, ignoring favoriting activity for new accounts, and keeping a much closer eye on new account activity.
But Anthony didn’t stop there, he went one step further. He named names. He posted on his blog a list of all the artists that, according to Anthony have “attempted to manipulate the charts on the Hype Machine”. Anthony says he published the list to “let everyone make their own judgments about quality, integrity and marketing strategies:”. But really, I suspect that Anthony’s real motivation was to shame those that would attempt to try to enlist the Hype Machine to promote their band.
A commenter on that blog post that claims membership in one of the outed shilling bands protests that they absolutely did not create fake accounts and they had been unfairly defamed (literally) by the Hype Machine. But Anthony responds with a list 4 tracks by the band that had each been favorited from a single IP address by over 40 separate, newly created accounts. Anthony says “Given that this is a time-consuming activity that primarily benefits you, you can see how it appears likely that you or your team may have been involved”.
Should Anthony have outed these artists? Surely the excessive favoriting could have been an overzealous fan that decided to try out a new way to hype their favorite band (to put the ‘hype’ in Hype Machine, if you will), and the band is blameless. But from Anthony’s point of view it doesn’t really matter. Anthony is going to protect the integrity of the Hype Machine and he’s going to do it by pointing to any band that has benefited from ‘unnatural’ enthusiasm. Even if it means public humiliation for the blameless.
I suspect Anthony’s next problem will occur when some pranksters realize that they can get any band blacklisted at the Hype Machine by a bit of nefarious activity. By simply creating a set of sham accounts and favoriting tracks by the vicitim band from those sham acounts, the Hype Machine can be manipulated into blacklisting and humilating the band. Is your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in a band? Get your dorm floor to create 50 Hype Machine accounts, favorite his tracks and watch the fun as he gets outed and shamed as a shill.
The lesson here is that charts that show popularity are hard to get right – they can be easily manipulated for fun or for profit. Anthony should be prepared to fight an escalating war against those that want to manipulate his charts. And the more popular the Hype Machine becomes, the bigger the target it will be for the hackers and the shills.
I’ve seen a few examples where recommenders, polls and top-ten lists have been manipulated. Generally a central coordinator sends a message to the hoard that descend on the to-be-hacked site. Ron Paul’s sheeple, or pharyngula‘s followers are prime examples of the type of group that can turn a poll upside down in a matter of minutes.
It has always seemed to me that such coordinating manipulation was a blunt instrument. The commanded horde could push a specific item to the top of a poll faster than a Kansas school board could lose Darwin’s notebook, but the horde lacked any subtlety or finesse. Sure you could promote or demote an individual or issue, but fine tuned manipulation would just be too difficult. Well, I’ve been proved wrong. Take a look at this Time Poll.
Not only has the poll been swamped to promote Moot (the pseudonym of the creator of 4chan, an image board and the birthplace for many internet memes) as the most influential of people, the poll crashers have manipulated the order of all the other nominees so that the first letter of each line spells out ‘marble cake, also the game’ (marble cake is not really a kind of cake btw). This is pretty phenomenal, precision hacking. Precision hacking of an extremely high profile poll run by a top notch media company. Now, imagine if the same energy was put into getting that latest Lordi album to the top of the pop 100 charts. I’m sure it could be done (and I’m already wondering if perhaps it has already been done, and we just don’t know it).
Polls, top-N lists, and recommenders based upon the wisdom of the crowds are susceptible to this type of manipulation. Better defenses are going to be needed otherwise we will all be listening to whatever 4chan wants us to listen to. (via reddit)
Spotify is the new “old napster” – everyone who uses it seems to love it. As this Google trends plot shows it is starting to become very popular.
But there is a downside to becoming popular – when you are popular you start to become a target of hackers. This is happening to Spotify now – Spotify is another platform waiting to be explored and exploited. Some notable hacks:
- Lastify – this is a rather benign hack – it adds a couple of buttons to the bottom of your spotify client that let you apply Last.fm ‘love’ and ‘ban’ to the currently playing track.
- Despotify – the open source Spotify client - this is a rather extensive hack. #hack.se has reverse engineeered the Spotify protocols and have built an open source Spotify client (with curses text-mode goodness). The client includes code that decrypts the encrypted music served by Spotify, potentially allowing anyone to not just listen to music, but to download and save it as well. Here’s a video of Despotify in action:
Already, Spotify seems to have responded to this hack, according to the Despotify page: “Despotify has been blocked for users using ‘free’ or ‘daypass’ accounts. You can still use despotify using ‘Premium’ accounts.”. That seems fair – if you pay for Spotify, you can use whatever client you want.
- Geographic hacks – Spotify is only released in certain countries. If you don’t live in the UK, Spain, France, Sweden, Norway or Finland you are out of luck – but not really. According to this article in Wired, some users are using a UK-based proxy to allow access to Spotify from places like the USA.
As Spotify gains in popularity, the Spotify engineers are going to be playing a bit of wack-a-mole to keep the hackers at bay in order to keep the Spotify platform stable and performant. So far, they seem to be doing a very good job.