Song identification on GitHub

The code for my song identification “nichesourcing” web application is now available on GitHub. It’s currently aimed at one project, as I’d mentioned in my earlier post, but has potential for wide use. It allows the following:

  • Users can register as editors or contributors. Only registered users have access.
  • Editors can post recording clips with short descriptions.
  • Contributors can view the list of clips and enter reports on them.
  • Reports specify type of sound, participants, song titles, and instruments. Contributors can enter as much or as little information as they’re able to.
  • Editors can modify clip metadata, delete clips, and delete reports.
  • Contributors and editors can view reports.
  • More features are planned, including an administrator role.

This is my first PHP coding project of any substance, so I’m willing to accept comments about my overall coding approach. It’s inevitable that, to some degree, I’m writing PHP as if it’s Java. If there are any standard practices or patterns I’m overlooking, let me know.

Crowdsourcing song identification

Some friends of mine are pulling together a project for crowdsourcing identification of a large collection of music clips. At least a couple of us are professional software developers, but I’m the one with the most free time right now, and it fits with my library background, so I’ve become lead developer. In talking about it, we’ve realized it can be useful to librarians, archivists, and researchers, so we’re looking into making it a crowdfunded open source project.

A little background: “Filk music” is songs created and sung by science fiction and fantasy fans, mostly at conventions and in homes. I’ve offered a definition of filk on my website. There are some shoestring filk publishers; technically they’re in business, but it’s a labor of love rather than a source of income. Some of them have a large backlog of recordings from past conventions. Just identifying the songs and who’s singing them is a big task.

This project is, initially, for one of these filk publishers, who has the biggest backlog of anyone. The approach we’re looking at is making short clips available to registered crowdsource contributors, and letting them identify as much as they can of the song, the author, the performer(s), the original tune (many of these songs are parodies), etc. Reports would be delivered to editors for evaluation. There could be multiple reports on the same clip; editors would use their judgment on how to combine them. I’ve started on a prototype, using PHP and MySQL.

There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm among the people already involved, which makes me confident that at least the niche project will happen. The question is whether there may be broader interest. I can see this as a very useful tool for professionals dealing with archives of unidentified recordings: folk music, old jazz, transcribed wax cylinder collections, whatever. There’s very little in the current design that’s specific to one corner of the musical world.

The first question: Has anyone already done it? Please let me know if something like this already exists.

If not, how interesting does it sound? Would you like it to happen? What features would you like to see in it?

Update: On the Code4lib mailing list, Jodi Schneider pointed out that nichesourcing is a more precise word for what this project is about.

HTML and fuzzy validity

Andy Jackson wrote an interesting post on the question of HTML validity. Only registered Typepad users can comment, so it’s easier for me to add something to the discussion here.

When I worked on JHOVE, I had to address the question of valid HTML. A few issues are straightforward; the angle brackets for tags have to be closed, and so do quoted strings. Beyond that, everything seems optional. There are no required elements in HTML, not even html, head, or body; a blank file or a plain text file with no tags can be a valid HTML document. The rules of HTML are designed to be forgiving, which just makes it harder to tell if a document is valid or not. I’ve recommended that JHOVE users not use the HTML module; it’s time-consuming and doesn’t give you much useful information.

There are things in XHTML which aren’t legal in HTML. The “self-closing” tag (<tag/>) is good XHTML, but not always legal HTML. In HTML5, <input ... /> is legal, but <span ... /> isn’t, because input doesn’t require a closing tag but span does. (In other words, it’s legal only when it’s superfluous.) However, any recent browser will accept both of them.

The set of HTML documents which are de facto acceptable and unambiguous is much bigger than the set which is de jure correct. Unfortunately, the former is a fuzzy set. How far can you push the rules before you’ve got unsafe, ambiguous HTML? It depends on which browsers and versions you’re looking at, and how strenuous your test cases are.

The problem goes beyond HTML proper. Most browsers deal with improper tag nesting, but JavaScript and CSS can raise bigger issues. These are very apt to have vendor-specific features, and they may have major rendering problems in browsers for which they weren’t tested. A document with broken JavaScript can be perfectly valid, as far as the HTML spec is concerned.

It’s common for JavaScript to be included by an external reference, often on a completely different website. These scripts may themselves have external dependencies. Following the dependency chain is a pain, but without them all the page may not work properly. I don’t have data, but my feeling is that far more web pages are broken because of bad scripts and external references than because of bad HTML syntax.

So what do you do when validating web pages? Thinking of it as “validating HTML” pulls you into a messy area without addressing some major issues. If you insist on documents that are fully compliant with the specs, you’ll probably throw out more than you accept, without any good reason. But at the same time, unless you validate the JavaScript and archive all external dependencies, you’ll accept some documents that have significant preservation issues.

It’s a mess, and I don’t think anyone has a good solution.

Professional update

Just to keep everyone up to date on what I’m doing professionally:

Currently I’m back in consulting mode, offering my services for software development and consultations. Those of you who’ve been following this blog regularly know I’ve been working with libraries for a long time and I’m familiar with the technology. I’ve updated my business home page at garymcgath.com and moved it to new hosting, which will allow me to put demos and other materials of interest on the site.

The key to success is, of course, networking. so if you happen to hear of a situation where my skills could be put to good use, please let me know.

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OOXML: The good and the bad

An article by Markus Feilner presents a very critical view of Microsoft’s Open Office XML as it currently stands. There are three versions of OOXML — ECMA, Transitional, and Strict. All of them use the same extensions, and there’s no easy way for the casual user to tell which variant a document is. If a Word document is created on one computer in the Strict format, then edited on another machine with an older version of Word, it may be silently downgraded to Transitional, with resulting loss of metadata or other features.

On the positive side, Microsoft has released the Open XML SDK as open source on Github. This is at least a partial answer to Feilner’s complaint that “there are no free and open source solutions that fully support OOXML.”

Incidentally, I continue to hate Microsoft’s use of the deliberately confusing term “Open XML” for OOXML.

Thanks to @willpdp for tweeting the links referenced here.

Library of Congress format recommendations

The Library of Congress has issued a set of recommendations for formats for both physical and digital documents. The LoC’s digital preservation blog has an interview with Ted Westervelt of the LoC on their development. They’re not just for the library’s own staff, he explains, but for “all stakeholders in the creative process.”

The guidelines repeatedly state: “Files must contain no measures that control access to or use of the digital work (such as digital rights management or encryption).” That’s pushback that can’t be ignored. In some cases, though, the message is mixed. For theatrically released films, standard or recordable Blu-Ray is accepted, but the boilerplate against DRM is included. I don’t know where they expect to get DRM-free Blu-Ray, but DRM-free options are few when it comes to big-name movies.

It’s also interesting that software, specifically games and learning materials, is included. This has been a growing area of interest in recent years. Rather than relying on emulation, the recommendations call for source code, documentation, and a specification of the exact compiler used to build the application.

There’s material here to fuel constructive debate and expansion for years.

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Update on JHOVE

I’ve updated the UTF-8 module in the JHOVE source on Github to include the new code blocks for Unicode 7.0.0. Also, I’ve recently fixed the pom.xml file so it will put both the command line and the GUI JAR files into the local repository.

I need more input before I’m comfortable with creating a release 1.12 of JHOVE. I don’t have any prior experience with creating a public, open-source project that’s built with Maven, and I don’t know how much of the baggage of the SourceForge project really needs to be kept. There are some specialty JARs in the old project, but I don’t know if anyone uses them. Most importantly, there still needs to be a distribution in Zip and Tar formats. New features would be interesting, but the first thing is to make a JHOVE that was as useful as it was before.

Comments, suggestions, and code contributions are welcome, as always.

New blocks in Unicode 7

Unicode 7.0.0 has been released, with 2.834 new character codes. It’s been fascinating looking into some of the blocks that have been added; here’s a sampling.

Bassa Vah is a really obscure script from what is now Liberia, possibly predating the country. Old Permic is supposed to be a close relative of Cyrillic, but any visual resemblance is lost on me.

Some of the writing systems came from a religious impulse. Mende Kikakui was devised by an Islamic scholar and was once widely used for the Mende language in Africa. It’s been mostly displaced by the Latin alphabet. Shong Lue Yang introduced the Pahawh Hmong writing system for the Hmong language in southeast Asia, claiming to have received it from God. Pau Cin Hau, named after its creator, was a 20th century system used for religious writings in Burma. Its original version had over a thousand characters, but the Unicode block is based on the 57-character alphabetic system. The Manichaean alphabet is fascinating just because of its name, recalling the conflicts in early Christianity. According to tradition, Mani, the founder of Manichaeanism, created the alphabet.

Finally, one of the oldest writing systems in the world, Linear A, is new in Unicode 7. It’s from ancient Crete, and no one knows how to read its texts. Now you can create computer documents in it, if you’re a scholar of old languages or just like confusing people.

Still no Klingon, though.

Now the JHOVE UTF-8 module needs to be updated for all these new blocks.

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The uses and abuses of PDF

PDF is a versatile format, but that doesn’t mean it should be used for everything. It’s a visual presentation format above all else. It lets you define a document with a specific appearance, with capabilities such as form filling and text searching. It’s not very good if you want a document that adapts to different device capabilities. If you need an editable format or a way to deliver structured data, there are much better alternatives.

When the Malaysian government released satellite data from the communications of Flight 370, which had disappeared, it delivered a PDF file. It looks very nice, but anyone who wants to extract and analyze the data has to do a lot of extra work. A spreadsheet or structured text (e.g., CSV) document is the right thing.

PDF can be used for e-books, but it’s not ideal. If you create normal sized pages, then on a phone they’ll either look tiny or require a lot of scrolling. Formats such as EPUB work better with a range of screen sizes.

Delivering text documents in PDF loses a lot of its value when the document is a scanned image rather than a text-based document. It can’t be searched, and people with visual disabilities can’t use text-to-speech. My condo association delivers its newsletters in scanned-image PDF. When I pointed out these problems at an owners’ meeting, I was told that the owners weren’t sophisticated enough to take advantage of those benefits. Our complex is a big one, and I’d be surprised if at least a few residents don’t use text-to-speech when they can. It’s not particularly hard to generate PDF files; scanning a finished document into a PDF seems like the hard way.

To maximize the usefulness of assistive technologies, you should create PDF/A if possible. It produces a slightly larger file, but it’s organized in a way that makes extraction of content easier and eliminates dependencies you might not have thought of.

Redacting PDFs is another tricky issue. If you simply black out an area, that’s the equivalent of gluing a piece of paper over it, and no harder to defeat. For advice on properly redacting documents, who better to turn to than the NSA? They may be a gang of criminals within the government, but they certainly know how to redact. It’s from 2006, though, so some of its advice could be dated.

There are lots of things you can do with PDF, but use it intelligently and where it’s appropriate.

Posted in commentary. Tags: . 2 Comments »
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