Archive for October 21st, 2009

Listening to Pandora’s Box

PandoraWhy do we like the music that we like? That is the question explored by Rob Walker in a great piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the Internet radio station Pandora. Pandora attempts to deconstruct the music you like and find similar songs to match your taste, without any nonmusical filters whatsoever.

I’ve already sung the praises of listening to the radio, but that has some major drawbacks: annoying DJs, repetitive set lists, lots and lots of commercials. Pandora, however, presents itself as something of a solution to these problems (they still have commercials, but only like 15 seconds worth every four songs, not the five minutes worth every three on the radio). 

Here’s how it works: You go to the website (or you get their app, which is more common, but my cell phone is from late 2008, so I can’t do that yet) and enter a song* or artist you like. From that, Pandora will construct a radio station around similar songs. You can approve or disapprove of every song, and with each judgment, the radio station refines its idea of your taste. Continue reading

Top 173 Things in History: #149. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Cycles of American History

People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise. And many new troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or by private interests, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different. It always becomes after a while “time for a change.”

The Cycles of American History

Before historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.—not to be confused with his father, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—published The Cycles of American History in 1986, few people recognized that history had a point. Most instead believed that history was composed of unconnected events in the past that had little to no effect on the present.

At the time, historians defended their practice with two famous quotations: 1. Dionysius’s “History is philosophy teaching by example” and 2. Hegel’s “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.” There were, however, several problems with these quotes. First, Dionysius (of Halicarnassus) lived before Jesus and was more a rhetorician than a historian.* Second, Hegel is really, really hard to understand.

*And what forms of history did he really have access to? What could he study? I assume he did all his research in the Library of Alexandria.

Continue reading