Feb 13

The Mincer: An Experiment In Gamification

FT/11 comments • 1,572 views

1. Take a large number of individual tracks.
2. Put the first 64 into a playlist.
3. Shuffle.
4. Play (no skipping allowed).
5. After two tracks, decide – as quickly as you can – which of the two you want to hear again.
6. Delete the other.
7. Repeat until playlist is over. You will have 32 tracks left.
8. Shuffle again.
9. Play (no skipping allowed).
10. Using the process outlined in 5-7, go through the playlist until you have 16 tracks.
11. Add another 48 tracks to the playlist.
12. Repeat steps from 3.

This is – mostly – how I’ve been listening to music for the last month or so. It started with the realisation that I had close to 50,000 MP3s on my hard drive and – even accounting for duplicates – the majority of them were rarely, if ever, listened to. So I wanted a method of listening to them. I could of course have come up with a simpler method – i.e. put a bunch on a playlist, play them, keep the ones I liked – but I wondered if formalising that would be more fun for me. And it is.

At least, it’s more fun than it looks.

The Mincer has several advantages. On average songs get two listens, in practice there’s a long tail distribution where most get one but ‘winners’ get a lot. If you discover an amazing song you hear it often enough that you keep enjoying it, not so often that you wear it out. You become terribly fond of long-stayers. You are often forced to give OK or mediocre records a second chance, by the luck of the draw, and these might grow on you. You learn about your tastes, prejudices and moods by having to choose between utterly different records. And you can keep topping up your playlist with new tracks, so it works as a way of staying current too. (I suspect, given enough lead time, it would be a good method for getting through something like the massive torrents of new music you get prior to SXSW). And, like most gamification, it is basely engaging in a slightly gross, what-does-this-say-about-me way. However clinical this approach sounds, it’s having the desired effect – I’m actually listening to (and frequently loving) the swathes of music I’ve so gluttonously acquired.

It’s not without its problems. Occasionally you get two songs you’d like to keep. You can always cheat, though. I don’t, but then I enjoy the straitjacket. You have to interrupt your listening occasionally to delete tracks, which can be a hassle. And on some level you’re treating songs as cannon fodder, not as works of art, which is why I called it the Mincer. But art and beauty are hardy creatures and in my experience adapt to this better than they adapt to being locked on a hard drive somewhere and ignored.

Oh, and it probably doesn’t work for albums. I’ve not tried. I’ve also got lots of music I’ve been listening to more ‘normally’ – albums included – but there’s something addictive about the mix of discovery, rediscovery, and gladiatorial brutality which makes me keep returning to the Mincer. Give it a try! Or don’t. Run screaming.


  1. 1

    ^^^first mincer dilemma

  2. 2
    Weej on 4 Mar 2013 #

    I’ve been giving this a go over the last few days, as frankly any way of dealing with the vast unexplored wastelands of the ‘Music – unsorted’ folder is welcome, and so far it hasn’t felt in any way like a chore, which is very welcome indeed. Two issues have come up though, a bit technical and not a lot of fun, but I was wondering what people thought.

    1. In order to get a random-ish selection I did a search for *.mp3 in the folder and sorted by ‘title’ – then realised I had to sort out the tagging or else I’d have a lot of ’01 – (title)’ and the ‘Track 01’ would be in a big clump later on. That done, I’ve got a whole load of songs beginning with brackets and puncuation, then the songs with numbers in the titles are next, etc. Anyone got a better way to line up a folder of music?

    2. My Phillips phone / winamp only seem to have ‘shuffle play’ as a single option, so not sure how I can do offline shuffling of a playlist. If I play and shuffle the phone repeats songs, especially when I’m deleting as I go. So I’ve left the ‘shuffle’ parts out for now. Anyone know how I can fix this?

  3. 3
    Alex on 12 Mar 2013 #

    You’ve basically reinvented the analytic hierarchy process:-) At the end of it, you’ll be able to run a principal components analysis and determine what your tastes actually are, at the 99.7% confidence level.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 13 Mar 2013 #

    @weej. A technique I’ve employed to ensure I explore at least some of the hinterlands of my collection is to occasionally sort iTunes by Time/Duration and then listen to everything, say, 5m 13s long:

    Fallin Free 5:13 Madonna
    Cosmos Trip 5:13 Electronic System
    For Free 5:13 Motorpsycho
    Women Who Fly 5:13 Nona Hendryx
    Satan is Boring 5:13 Sonic Youth
    Section ll 5:13 Steve Reich
    The Underwater World Of Jah Costeau 5:13 Original Rockers
    White Valiant 5:13 The Mutton Birds
    Kornpoziclia za 8 gitari (Composition fo… 5:13 Fydhws
    Listen to My Voice 5:13 Gary Numan
    Annalisa 5:13 Kolbe/Illennger/Dauner
    Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! 5:13 ABBA
    Pneumonia 5:13 Bjork
    Just Be (Carmen Rizzo Chill Ou 5:13 Tiesto
    Nicotine & Gravy 5:13 Beck
    Parallelisme 5:13 Miharu Koshi
    Over The Rainbow 5:13 Ben Webster
    Someone Somewhere In Summertime (… 5:13 Simple Minds

    The Mincer’s straightjacket of pairwise showdown deletion wouldn’t work for me, but then I’m not staring at 50K tracks!

  5. 5

    swanstep’s method — which i use too, in various ways — reminds me that ittookseconds.tumblr.com has been stuck at 3’29” for two years now :D :(

    (i find that reminding others of the size of their MUST GET BACK TO piles makes mine seem smaller)

    (or it would do if mine didn’t so dwarf all the others that ugh bah)

  6. 6
    swanstep on 14 Mar 2013 #

    This vast libraries problem reminds me of the early Futurama ep. where the characters visit the Wong Library at Mars University (motto ‘Knowledge Brings Fear’), which is said to have the largest collection of literature in the Western Universe.

    (The show probably wouldn’t do this exact gag now – the image feels quite 1999, MS Encarta. It would be interesting to see or devise an update.)

  7. 7
    Tom on 27 Mar 2013 #

    After filing ittookseconds as definitely “abandoned” for ages I’ve been toying with restarting it.

    People interested in the progress of THE MINCER can find updates at


    Though maybe I should just post them here.

  8. 8

    […] to November, then digesting it all in one lump in December. This year I’ve been using the ‘Mincer’ technique to get through a thousand or so tracks. Now it’s 2014, I have 27 tracks left, all […]

  9. 9
    James BC on 1 Jun 2015 #

    I’ve decided to use this technique to listen to a single artist’s tracks. Three changes: add tracks in chronological order, 32 tracks at a time not 64, only iterate once before adding more tracks.

    Doing it with Wyclef Jean with pretty good results. I’m rediscovering some goodies.

  10. 10
    Tom on 1 Jun 2015 #

    Excellent. The original version of THE MINCER was lost to a hard drive crash in April 2013. But I’ve been intermittently using a 64-track, single-iteration version on the NOW albums ever since then (paused currently in the early NOW 50s because the current version of iTunes slows my ancient computer down so much it barely works, so I’ve been relying on my phones and spotify.)

    It’s proved a handy way of doing deeper background listening on Popular – putting stuff in a wider context. The tracks that last longest hit a sweet spot of great track by a band I don’t actually like (or at least listen to) much – currently I think “Live Forever” is the record holder, lasting 16 rounds.

  11. 11
    James BC on 3 Jun 2015 #

    Now albums seem ideal. The potential trouble with doing it with a single artist might be that you zoom through years of a career at warp speed and don’t get much of a sense of anything. With Wyclef this is mitigated as his albums (I mean I love him but they) tend to be somewhat bloated and padded out with skits and things.

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