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

Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 4: April 2011

Trends & Quick Takes

Bonus Predictions

I didn’t get these into the earlier roundup, but the January 2011 PC World includes ten “tech predictions to take to the bank” from the editors of PC World, who are of course the experts. They’re not consensus views, they’re from individual editors:

·         By the end of 2011, “a sizable chunk” of the population will use smartphones to make payments.

·         All tablets not named iPads will be massive flops. They won’t work well and they won’t sell well.

·         3D TV will take off…

·         Flash (drives) will shake up the PC market…

·         In two years, “compact interchangeable lens” cameras will outsell DSLRs.

·         All e-readers will be color by the end of 2011.

·         Conventional “feature phones” will “fade away” in favor of smartphones.

·         Some company (probably Google) will launch a cloud-based OS that makes sense for the average user. (Steve Fox says “most of our computing now takes place in the Web browser,” to which I can only say “speak for yourself.”)

·         IPv6 will be the acronym of the year. (It won’t, but only because it’s not an acronym, it’s an initialism/abbreviation.)

·         Facebook versus Google will become the most relevant rivalry in tech. Oh, and Google Me will tank.

We shall see.

It’s Not the Gear, It’s the Talent

There was a refreshing post title in the Wired blog “Raw File” on November 19, 2009: “Hi-Def DSLRs May Be Cheap, But Talent Is Priceless.” The piece is by Brendan Seibel. It concerns the most overlooked aspect of media for those proclaiming that we’re all moviemakers, or should be.

The story notes a short film by Vincent Laforet shot entirely on a prototype Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a camera with “extraordinary low-light sensitivity and HD video capabilities.” At the time, “It appeared to be an all-in-one movie studio replacement”—and portions of the video community cheered.

It seemed that a few big Hollywood studios would no longer dominate our viewing agenda, that an indie revolution was imminent and that the dam on a reservoir of creativity had been destroyed. But that has not been the case. So why are we not awash in studio-quality, low-budget flicks? The answer is complex, and it zeros in on an ever more important relationship between the tools of production and the actual talent of filmmaking—the two of which people often confuse.

A group of indie filmmakers shot a feature-length movie using a different DSLR (the Nikon D90)—and this time, when trailers were put online, people were “torn between criticizing the movie as much as the quality of image.” Yes, the new equipment means anybody with a couple thousand bucks to spare can capture high-def images (although there are issues with shooting high-def video on what’s essentially a still camera)—but so what? Now you have the raw images, which may or may not be movie-quality video. How do you create a worthwhile movie from that? Set aside one curious issue: some “prosumer” equipment shoots at 30 frames per second—but many popular video-editing programs assume the traditional movie rate of 24 frames per second, and converting from one to the other smoothly is a bitch. That’s just the start.

Experienced filmmakers are accustomed to long hours spent in post production, but most dabblers in video will probably lack the time or initiative to fully understand the process involved.

And, of course, making a movie requires talent—not just from the videographer but, for movies with plots and actors, from a whole host of others. Those costs don’t go down just because the considerable cost of film goes away entirely and the new cameras are a whole lot cheaper. The underlying issue remains: This stuff is hard.

(One really good comment: “Give a man a hammer and he will believe he is a carpenter.” Another: “The greatest word processor in the world will not make you Charles Dickens.” Except that, with fiction, one creative genius can do the whole thing; with video other than possibly documentaries, that’s just not the case.)

Information Wants to be Free?

Not Meredith’s blog—but, in this case, one of Nicholas Carr’s more pointed pieces in Rough Type: “Information wants to be free my ass,” dated January 18, 2010. He starts: “Never before in history have people paid as much for information as they do today.” And, after noting the likely reaction from lots of “everything’s free” folks, he says “Sorry, sucker. The joke’s on you” and suggests that you do the math—something I’ve suggested from time to time. Namely, add up what you spend for internet service, cable TV or satellite, all cell phone costs, landline phone, Netflix, wifi hotpots, TiVo and “other information services.”

So what's the total? $100? $200? $300? $400? Gizmodo reports that monthly information subscriptions and fees can easily run to $500 or more nowadays. A lot of people today probably spend more on information than they spend on food.

Have you done that calculation? $100 is certainly on the low side for a typical American household, I’d guess (lots of people pay more than that just for cable TV—and these days lots of families pay a lot more than that in cell-phone bills).

Do your own calculations. I come up with $119 for our household—but that doesn’t include print subscriptions. I’m pretty sure we’re outliers on the low side for households with heavy computer use and plenty of entertainment. Can you come in at less than, say, $200?

The reason we fork out all that dough is (I'm going to whisper the rest of this sentence) because we place a high monetary value on the content we receive as a result of those subscriptions and fees.

That’s not entirely true. We pay $60/year for cell phone service in order to have emergency services available; some folks who basically use cell phones retain a landline for similar reasons. Here’s the money paragraph, though, particularly given the widespread sense that “information”—that is, actual content—should be free:

It's a strange world we live in. We begrudge the folks who actually create the stuff we enjoy reading, listening to, and watching a few pennies for their labor, and yet at the very same time we casually throw hundreds of hard-earned bucks at the saps who run the stupid networks through which the stuff is delivered. We screw the struggling artist, and pay the suit.

Is Carr wrong? At least one commenter seems to miss the whole point, arguing that we’re paying less per bit than we used to—but that’s really not the issue. And, to be sure, this person thinks we’ll eventually get Everything as part of those subscription fees.

One commenter does raise useful objections. Much of what you pay for Netflix or cable TV goes through to “content creators” (or, rather, copyright owners). Several seem to focus on the fact that you can get a lot more these days, but Carr isn’t saying otherwise. He’s saying that in absolute terms people pay more for “information” today than ever before. And, sure enough, some commenters justify their reluctance to pay for quality content creation by saying they’ve already paid for transmission.

Quicker Takes

According to Shane Buettner in the December 2010 Home Theater, Blu-Ray “is now officially mainstream.” Over six million copies (out of 20 million total) sold of Avatar were Blu-Ray; about 17% of U.S. households have Blu-Ray players.

·         Christopher Elliott offers an interesting perspective in “The Insider” column in the January/February 2011 National Geographic Traveler: “Savor the Trip, Don’t Tweet It.” Elliott believes an overload of tech gadgets is ruining vacations—that you’ll get more out of a vacation if you shut down the gadgets, at least some of the time, and just enjoy. Time enough for FB status updates and tweets later. I’m inclined to agree.

·         I just love letters to the editor. Two letters in the December 2010 PC World, both about “The E-reader Wars,” are great examples. The first says that iPads offer a much nicer reading experience than e-ink—because this reader does most of their reading “in dim rooms where the LCD shines (literally).” The second says that e-ink “is much easier on my eyes” and couldn’t take the iPad for extended reading. “I’m not sure why…maybe the problem is too much contrast, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m staring into a light for an hour?” (This reader also finds multifunction devices too distracting.) In a world of multiple choices rather than The Single Future, of course, they’re both right.

·         It’s been a while, but you can still read “Kickstartup” by Jason Scott at ASCII, posted November 24, 2009. The easiest way to find it is directly: It’s about how Scott, newly laid off from his day job, managed to fund his own sabbatical using Kickstart to the tune of $25,000 (he actually got $26,658.) It’s an unusual use for Kickstart, since that crowdfunding system is normally project-oriented, but Scott’s an unusual person (profane and a genuinely talented computer historian). He realized that he was actually asking people to fund a startup, namely “Jason Scott Historian.” It’s quite a story. You might find it inspirational. You might not.

·         It’s probably worth noting (belatedly!) that December 2009 marked the final issue of Internet Resources Newsletter, another one of those strange gray eperiodicals (you’re reading one of the few that remain). This one lasted 178 issues. The archives are still available as I write this, at irn/irn.html. In this case, the newsletter died when the editor, Roddy MacLeod, took early retirement. It was a good run for roughly 16 years. Sixteen years…that’s a lot—even with sponsorship. (If you include Crawford’s Corner as a direct ancestor, C&I has been going even longer—but I’m not sure that you should include it.)

·         To finish off items from 2009 I tagged for T&QT (OK, I’m behind…), here’s “From Cinepak to H.265: a brief history of video compression” by Anders Bylund at ars technica, dated “about a year ago” and tagged in late December 2009. It’s an interesting walk through the recent history of video compression—which, one way or another, is the only way HDTV can exist but also one reason so much streamed and online video looks so crappy. (One item in the story claims that H.264 compression, pretty much the standard for Blu-Ray and requiring a lot of computer power for decompression, can provide “broadcast-quality” video at 1.5megabit rates. That may be true, but not on my 1.5mbps-3mbps DSL line, unless you take a very generous view of what broadcast quality should mean.) At some point, to be sure, compression must yield visible loss of quality: you can only go so far. How big is the problem? Consider how much data is actually in true HDTV pictures with surround sound, quite apart from multiple soundtracks, captioning and the like. The numbers are straightforward: Each frame is 1920x1080 pixels, each pixel requiring three bytes for color information. That’s 6.22 megabytes per frame. At 24fps (film rate), that’s 149 megabytes per second (megabytes, not megabits)—although broadcast TV is actually 60fps, but broadcast TV is never 1080p. Oh, let’s not forget the sound: six channels of CD-quality sound is a little more than four megabytes per second—so let’s round up to 155 megabytes per second. Blu-Ray, the only true 1080p medium around, requires 30 megabits, that is, 3.75 megabytes. So even at 24fps, the least compressed video you’re ever likely to see these days has about a 41:1 compression ratio—in other words, more than 97% of the original information has been thrown away.

·         Hoping to replace your hard disk with a solid-state drive [SSD] (or “flash drive” if you prefer)? Yes, SSDs can be faster than hard disks (depending on the software used to control them—they can also be a lot slower than hard disks). They’re also a lot more expensive, and they’re not actually closing the curve (that is, hard disks get cheaper faster than SSDs do: SSDs basically follow Moore’s Observation, and hard disk capacity-for-price has typically improved at a much faster rate). Oh, but they’re more reliable, right? Not so, according to one review of data, noted in the February 2011 PC World—2.05% of SSDs were returned as nonfunctioning as compared to 1.94% of hard disk drives.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 4, Whole # 139, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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