Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 1: January 2011

Trends & Quick Takes

Story Time

I’m giving pride of place to this September 2, 2009 post by John Wilbanks at Common Knowledge because it’s rather wonderful. I urge you to go read the post itself. (If you read it already, it’s now 16 months later. Read it again.)

Wilbanks has noted “an explosion of talk about the future of the scientific article.” He’s been pushing “the need to enrich articles with semantics” since the mid-1990s, and “for years I was convinced it was right around the corner.” Oddly enough, he’s now less convinced—“and the reasons for that are human, not technical.” Given that Wilbanks distinguishes between articles (narrative text) and databases (the data behind the articles), where semantic methodologies exist and should grow, I think he’s making a great point. “The impact of formal semantics on text, which is what humans interface with, has been negligible” despite the apparent benefits.

The problem is that people are the writers. Humans. Not machines. Machines luuuuuv semantics. Otherwise they can't tell the difference between a picture and a pitcher (or between a pitcher of water and a baseball pitcher). This is why one should never send one's mother to buy jewelry via Google without the safe browsing mode enabled.

And people don't like formal semantics. I majored in formal semantics, and it's a topic that still gives me headaches.

People like stories.

Scientists are people.

Scientists like stories.

A paper is a story. It tells, in its own way, the story of years of work. Of building expertise. Of designing falsifiable hypotheses. Of the results found in the lab. Of the search to balance those results against the canon and dogma. Of the potential ramification of the results.

There’s more here, but that’s the key message. I’m a great believer in story as the heart of most communication and much enjoyment, and I think Wilbanks is on the money here. He goes further: One role of publishers should be to translate the stories into a form machines can understand, that is, to add formal semantics so the stories can be used by other machines as sets of linked facts.

The semantic article isn't going to come from individual scientists rebelling and marking up their own text. It's going to be a publisher value-added service—"let us make your article integrated, and comprehensible, so that you maximize your citation count and potential collaboration."

It seems like a great idea, one where there’s real added value. Is it something today’s megapublishers can or will do? That’s a different question, and maybe not a relevant one.

What Does NC Mean to You?

That is, in slightly different form, what Creative Commons asked us users a while back, in the form of a moderately difficult survey. I use the CC BY-NC license a lot—for C&I, for example—and I’ve added my own gloss on what NC means for my own work, because “noncommercial” is not nearly as self-explanatory as you’d think.

In September 2009, CC released Defining Noncommercial, based on surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews. You’ll find the report at There’s an 18MB PDF (a 255-page report including 82 pages of text and a lot of appendices) and source documents in OpenOffice formats—and a zipped archive of all the raw data, made available with a CC0 (public domain) license, so it can be used in any form, commercial or otherwise. Here are three key paragraphs from the executive summary:

The empirical findings suggest that creators and users approach the question of noncommercial use similarly and that overall, online U.S. creators and users are more alike than different in their understanding of noncommercial use. Both creators and users generally consider uses that earn users money or involve online advertising to be commercial, while uses by organizations, by individuals, or for charitable purposes are less commercial but not decidedly noncommercial. Similarly, uses by for-profit companies are typically considered more commercial. Perceptions of the many use cases studied suggest that with the exception of uses that earn users money or involve advertising—at least until specific case scenarios are presented that disrupt those generalized views of commerciality—there is more uncertainty than clarity around whether specific uses of online content are commercial or noncommercial.

Uses that are more difficult to classify as either commercial or noncommercial also show greater (and often statistically significant) differences between creators and users. As a general rule, creators consider the uses studied to be more noncommercial (less commercial) than users. For example, uses by a not-for-profit organization are generally thought less commercial than uses by a for-profit organization, and even less so by creators than users. The one exception to this pattern is in relation to uses by individuals that are personal or private in nature. Here, it is users (not creators) who believe such uses are less commercial.

The most notable differences among subgroups within each sample of creators and users are between creators who make money from their works, and those who do not, and between users who make money from their uses of others’ works, and those who do not. In both cases, those who make money generally rate the uses studied less commercial than those who do not make money. The one exception is, again, with respect to personal or private uses by individuals: users who make money consider these uses more commercial than those who do not make money.

What? You didn’t think there was any real question? Those three paragraphs should be enough to convince you that there is—and that it’s not an easy question to answer. Is David Lee King’s blog a commercial site, such that his reuse of a C&I article would violate my BY-NC license? I don’t happen to think so—but he does run ads and presumably earns money.

The study (and related blog posts) also provides recommendations on how to use and think about NC…and some cases where NC really isn’t the most appropriate license.

Wired to be Google/Twitter Addicts?

That’s the premise of Emily Yoffe’s August 12, 2009 Slate article, “Seeking” (or, in Slate’s alt-universe page title, “The powerful and mysterious brain circuitry that makes us love Google, Twitter, and texting”). If nothing else, it’s a rejoinder to those who say we’ll stop searching Real Soon Now because something else (it looks a lot like Push but with a 21st century polish—it’s sometimes called the Semantic Web, wrongly I believe) will tell us what we need to know before we even think to ask about it.

Yoffe’s fond of faux universalisms, invoking “We” at least five times in the first two paragraphs—e.g., this claim for what “we” (all?) do:

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.

That’s the heart of the article—a claim that “we” do this because, like rats, we have a “seeking” emotional state that’s the “granddaddy of the [emotional] systems” in all mammals. Dopamine is involved…and I guess I wonder whether “we” all suffer from this addiction to this extent:

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix.

According to Yoffe, all electronic communication systems (from email on up) feed the same drive…and “Since we’re [all?] restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting.” This is a dangerous addiction all of us are prone to? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

The Case Against Apple?

Jason Calacanis posted this on August 8, 2009 at, with “—in Five Parts” replacing the question mark here. It’s an interesting piece, if only because Calacanis has been a true Apple lover. Indeed, the post begins

About six years and $20,000 ago, I made the switch to Apple products after a 20-year love affair with Microsoft.

Calacanis replaces everything every two years (other than his big monitors)—and when he wrote this, he had seven iPods, four Mac laptops, two Airports, a Time Capsule, two Mac towers, a Mac Mini, two iMacs and “all three iPhones.” (And an iPartridge in an iPear Tree?) But he’s tiring of Apple, in part because of “Steve Jobs’ peculiar, rigidly closed, and severe worldview.”

Key Point 1: For the past six years, if Steve makes something, I buy it. Sometimes, I buy two (one for my wife).

Key Point 2: I over-pay for Apple products because I perceive them to be better (i.e. Windows-based hardware is 30-50% less–but at 38 years old I don’t care).

What’s the problem? Anti-competitive practices, mostly. This is clearly something that pains Calacanis to say—he says he’s rewritten the post three times over a full year—and tries hard to write about the Five Parts in ways that offer opportunities for Apple. Still:

Bottom line: Of all the companies in the United States that could possibly be considered for anti-trust action, Apple is the lead candidate. The US Government, however, seems to be obsessed with Microsoft for legacy reasons and Google for privacy reasons.

The truth is, Google has absolutely no lock-in, collusion or choice issues like Apple’s, and the Internet taught Microsoft long ago that open is better than closed.

The five parts (the first sentence after each digit taken unchanged from the post):

1.         Destroying MP3 player innovation through anti-competitive practices. (Among other things, Apple tries its hardest to make it impossible to sync any non-Apple device to iTunes.)

2.        Monopolistic practices in telecommunications. This is, of course, the AT&T-only situation, and it may be changing.

3.        Draconian App Store policies that are, frankly, insulting.

Imagine for a moment if every application on Windows Mobile or Windows XP had to be approved by Microsoft–how would you react? Exactly. Once again we’ve enabled Steve Jobs’ insane control freak tendencies. This relationship is beyond dysfunctional–we are co-dependent.

4.      Being a horrible hypocrite by banning other browsers on the iPhone.

5.      Blocking the Google Voice Application on the iPhone.

Oddly enough, there don’t seem to be any comments except one linkspam.

Just a Little Favor…

How many science fiction writers win major awards for a book of blog posts and comments? If you haven’t already visited John Scalzi’s Whatever (, you should. Not only has he been blogging for more than twelve years, which is pretty phenomenal, he’s an excellent writer and good thinker and, amazingly, one who can get dozens or hundreds of thoughtful comments on his posts. He won the 2009 Hugo for Best Related Book for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998-2008.

Here, I’m pointing to a lengthy post from September 15, 2009: “On the Asking of Favors From Established Writers.” It’s just over 2,000 words—but it’s accompanied by 348 comments, and Scalzi comment threads are usually well worth reading.

Dear currently unpublished/newbie writers who spend their time bitching about how published/established writers are mean because they won’t read your work/introduce you to their agent/give your manuscript to their editor/get you a job on their television show/whatever other thing it is you want them to do for you:

Scalzi follows that with eight “things you should know,” each with some level-headed commentary. The eight? The job of a writer is to write. A writer’s obligations are not to you. The person who determines what a writer should do for others is the writer, not you. Writers are not dicks for not helping you. People asking for favors from writers often don’t understand the consequences of that favor. People asking favors from writers are often crazy in some undiagnosed way. Writers are not mystical door openers. Writers remember.

If that doesn’t sound like much…well, you gotta read the context. Scalzi spends a lot of time helping out other writers and offering advice to newcomers. He’s currently president of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (guess which two words were added later on?), and I’m guessing that’s a huge timesuck. Given Scalzi’s general amiability, it seems likely that he felt compelled to write this post based on a whole bunch of unfortunate incidents.

Loads of great comments as usual, including #6, quoted here in part:

You know, Mr. Scalzi, this reminds me of the one time when a professional writer/editor offered to critique some of my stuff. I didn’t ask, mind you–he offered, and his one condition for my accepting that offer was: “Please don’t tell anyone that I did this.” Oh. Took me a while to figure out why he was worried about that . . .

Some commenters either trivialize the post or just don’t get it. That’s how things work. (I love #38, by BC Woods: “This is all well and good, but what about asking for your help moving furniture?”) I should note that Scalzi is not saying “never ask a writer for favors.” He is saying that you should neither be surprised nor upset if the answer is No.

Quicker Takes

Does your Blu-ray player support BD-Live? Does that question make sense to you? A four-page article in the July 2010 Home Theater, “BD-Live Under Scrutiny,” considers the technology and its apparent lack of adoption. What’s BD-Live? Adding Internet features to Blu-ray discs: It requires a player with Internet access and 1GB of memory, but it also requires support on the disc itself. So far, it’s mostly been used for studio promotions and advertising, although there are some special featurettes (which should be on the disc in the first place). The article seems to say BD-Live just hasn’t found its “killer app.” I’m more inclined to believe it’s a mostly-pointless technology. My own take? When we finally got a (great!) wide-screen HDTV and a new player to go along with it, we definitely got Blu-ray—but we didn’t pay the extra $30 for a BD-Live model. Just didn’t see the point.

·         Here’s a mildly strange one: New Liberal Arts, an 80-page book with 21 “ideas” that began as a limited edition (200 copies) print book and continues as a free PDF, now that all 200 copies have sold. It’s nice to see “ransoming” a free version works for some people; it doesn’t for others. If you want to read the little book, start at and choose your version. When I say “little,” I don’t just mean 88 pages—most of those pages are nearly blank. The HTML version yields a 27-page print preview, and if you strip out contributor’s bios the whole thing is considerably less than 9,000 words, or about half of a typical C&I issue (three times the length of this Trends & Quick Takes). I read through it in ten minutes and wasn’t impressed; you may find it more worthwhile.

·         Since my pile of tagged items on ebooks and ereaders is uncomfortably large and my desire to write about them is surprisingly small, maybe it’s best to toss the occasional item in here—such as “Are ebooks the new CD-ROM?” by “damyanti” on Buns! Blankets! Bears!, posted in September 2009. Noting some ebooks being announced with enhancements, the writer wonders whether ebooks will actually make reading more “immersive and media rich” and whether they could create a more collaborative reading experience—or whether they’ll become “just the new CD-ROM,” which I assume points to failure. I could argue that the most immersive books are text-only, but that’s a separate question. Only two comments on a relatively brief post; the conversation didn’t move forward. Perhaps unfortunate.

·         I haven’t written much about “the cloud” and don’t plan to start now, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that The Cloud is sort of a meaningless term. On that topic, you could do a lot worse than to read some of Jason Scott’s stuff at ASCII (, such as “Oh Boy, The Cloud” on October 5, 2009, earlier posts linked from that one, “Outlook is Cloudy” on October 11, 2009 (after a whole bunch of T-Mobile Sidekick owners lost all their cloud-based data) and more since then (including one on December 22, 2009 that will go nameless here because, well, this is a genteel publication). I love this quote from Leslie Lamport (in the first comment on the October 11 post): ““A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable.”

·         I’ve discussed “wireless power” before, always with a sense that it really can’t work in an environmentally responsible way: You can’t get anywhere close to 100% efficiency in any such situation, with the reality probably a lot worse. An October 23, 2009 GigaOm item, “Wireless Power Is Still Pretty Useless,” discusses a couple of wireless devices that are only nominally wireless: Duracell MyGrid and the Powermat, both of which are plugged-in mats that can charge portable devices sitting directly on the mat with special adapters attached. A longer report calls these “lifestyle technologies,” mostly for people willing to spend $140 or more to avoid plugging in a device charger. The author of the piece answers a question about environmental responsibility: Yes, of course these devices waste power. I’m guessing “over-the-air power transmission” will waste a lot more power.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 1, Whole # 136, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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