The problem with music recommendations

There's a popular song, written by an Argentinean musician called Charly García, called "Los Dinosaurios" ("The Dinosaurs"). The song was released in 1983 in the album "Clics Modernos", and you can listen to it in all its vinyl glory here.

This song represents for me an interesting problem: it is by far my favourite song from this author, and I would like to listen to something similar. But so far all recommendation systems have failed me. Here are some of the reasons why.

A first approach could be to pick something from the same author, or even the same album. This approach, sadly, doesn't work: while Charly García is certainly a prolific author, with 41 published records and countless guest appearances, his main style is oriented towards electronic music, and it doesn't really fit the style of this specific song. If anything, this song is more fitting for his earlier albums, which limits us quite a bit - out of those 41 soloist albums, "Clics Modernos" is the second one.

We could instead assume that this song was written in a certain context, and that looking at authors from a similar context we can obtain similar music. Again, this doesn't entirely work: if we pick "Argentinean songs from the 80's", we would end up with a list of songs that fit perfectly the style of the other 8 songs on this album, but not this one specifically^1. Grouping the song into "Latin American music", as some systems do, only exacerbates the problem: there is no relation at all between this song and, say, a Cuban bachata.

If we look at the actual lyrics, the situation gets even worse: "Los dinosaurios" is a thinly veiled critique of the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. A lyrics-based systems would most likely fail on two fronts: either it wouldn't understand the references made in the song and label it as "nonsense/fantastical", or it would understand the reference and recommend politically charged songs. Neither approach seems really right - while "The times they are a-Changin" could be a viable candidate for a recommendation, neither "The Revolution will not be televised" nor "Redemption song" fit the bill.

All of these approaches fail for the same reason: they apply a network-oriented measure to a song that doesn't fit the popular rhythm of the time and place in which it was produced, and which doesn't fit the overall style of the author either.

So what exactly am I looking for? A non-technical answer would be "I need a song that contains simple vocals, a piano as it's main instrument, and with raising tension towards the end". Or in the words of the author, a song that "adapts the English sound to Tango". As far as I know, the only system that applied a similarity measure capable of detecting this would be Pandora, but with their system closed to Europe, I cannot tell whether this works or not.


^1 How to obtain a digital archive of Argentinean songs from the early 80's is left as an exercise for the reader.

Related reading:

The Napoleon Dynamite problem.

Voting in Argentina

For the longest time, I thought that elections all over the world were more or less the same. Finding out that this is not the case was surprising, but not as much as what came afterwards: out of all the typical complaints, the Argentinean voting system manages to avoid most common pitfalls. So here's a quick overview.


First of all, and this should be a no-brainer, election day in Argentina is a public holiday, and always takes place on Sunday. The act of voting itself can take somewhere between 5 minutes and an hour, depending on whether you show up during rush hour or not. Voting is mandatory, too, and it always takes place as close to home as possible, so you really have no excuse not to vote.

On election day you show up with your ID to your designated place (usually the nearest school), and you queue at your assigned table. Eventually you present your ID and receive in return an empty envelope. Then you enter the so-called "dark room" alone, and close the door. Inside you'll find piles of ballots with the name and photo of each candidate. You pick one, seal the envelope, put it inside the urn, receive your ID back, and off you go.

Running the voting process is a (paid!) civic duty, and as such anyone over the age of 21 can be chosen. If you are selected, you get a letter informing you of your role (either President, Vice President, or backup), and where and when to receive a free training course. Aside from these voting authorities (three per table), there's an unspecified number of volunteers from political parties. These volunteers' main job is to make sure everything is run fair and square, but the table President can kick them out if they are out of line. Should (s)he need it, the army is always there to lend a hand.

What goes well, what doesn't

What is there to like about this system? A lot. Mandatory voting, public holiday, and short-ish queues ensure that everyone can vote. And while jerk bosses exist everywhere, it's an accepted part of the culture that, on election day, you vote. The system is also simple enough that anyone can understand it.

Large scale fraud is notoriously difficult, and expensive. Voter supression is also reasonably dealt with, as evidenced by the 80% turnover rate. Fun fact: every election, a non-zero number of fugitives end up arrested when they show up to their assigned voting place.

The Achiles heel of this system are the ballots themselves. For starters they can be stolen (and they are), so political parties must print ten times the required number to account for this (and even then, at times they just give up). They can also be replaced by fake ones, so they are thrown away during the vote count for being couterfeits. There's literally no good reason for not implementing a single voting ballot, which is probably why new projects introducing this change are shot down over and over by the ruling parties. At a more general level, the argentinean political system exhibits all known defects from the "first past the poll" system.

In conclusion

I'm really impressed by the vision the founding fathers of Argentina showed in several aspects, and elections is one of them (the other main one being the Constitution). There is no doubt that argentinean politicians are not the best the country has to offer, but that's hardly the voting procedure's fault.

And then again, who hasn't elected a clown for President here and there?