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

Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 6: July 2012

The Back

What a Thing to Come Home To, Eh?

That’s the last half of the last sentence of the blurb—you can’t really call it a review—for the Focal Utopia III Maestro Loudspeaker in the January 2012 Home Theater. The speakers are roughly five feet tall and weigh 256 pounds. As shown, the cabinet i’s high-gloss “Imperial Red” on the sides (you can also choose Black Laquer or Carrera White), some other color on the front, and oddly shaped (three subcabinets are tilted differently), with—of course—exposed speakers, since grills are for wusses.

This is one of the cheaper Focal Utopia III models, “two models down” from the flagship model. That’s why it costs a mere $45,000 a pair (the really good ones are $180,000 and stand 80" tall). The first half of that last sentence: “Sure, you may have to trade in your luxury sedan to get a pair”—although I’m not sure what class of luxury sedan would bring $45,000 as a trade-in. What fascinated me was this flat statement: “And it’s actually beautiful enough to put on display in a multipurpose living space.” To which I can only say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m guessing most spouses (of whatever gender) would be appalled at having these hulking “unfolding accordion” beasts in the living room.

I’m equally interested in why this blurb takes up two-thirds of the first editorial page in the issue, with a nice big picture. It’s not a review: There’s not a word about the actual sound, unless you count “But there’s no denying the performance or the elegance…” (I’ll deny the elegance of these beasts, by the way.) They’re not brand new—this magazine’s sister magazine Stereophile reviewed them in July 2010. The subheading above them is “Premiere Design,” so I guess this is what Home Theater regards as great design.

You can judge for yourself. This link should take you to Stereophile’s image of the speaker, or you can Bing it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe everybody with proper aesthetic sensibilities thinks these things—they’re actually 57.9" tall by 17.9" wide by 30.3" deep—are handsome as all get-out. If you want an in-depth review with measurements, here’s that July 2010 Stereophile piece, by John Atkinson, the magazine’s editor and one of its most sensible writers. Personally, I think they’re pretty ugly even for industrial chic, but what do I know?

Getting it Wrong

The same January 2012 Home Theater, still in the “Perfect Focus” up-front section, has a half-page piece “The Netflix Soap Opera Continues” that would be amusing if it wasn’t so misleading. Portions of the story are OK, if (as usual) slanted to make Netflix look incompetent and on the verge of failure. But here’s the kicker: The story says that the contract with Starz for movies from Disney and Sony will (did) expire in February 2012, and the way that’s stated is “If you want to Netflix that stuff, do it before February 2012.”

What’s that? Netflix didn’t have Disney and Sony flicks available after February 2012? In the real world, that’s not true. Netflix streaming may have lost these flicks, but for those of us with disc-only or combined memberships, the movies continue to be available. And for those of us who appreciate Blu-ray quality, discs continue to be the only option.

Speaking of “getting it wrong,” the January Sound & Vision includes a blurb about an Altec Lansing “wireless boombox” that includes a “4-inch subwoofer.” There is no such thing as a 4-inch subwoofer. This speaker may have a 4-inch lower-midrange or upper-bass speaker, but it ain’t no subwoofer.

I’m always amused by scare quotes. Al Griffin uses them around the word lossless in mentioning FLAC, a lossless audio compression format. He also gets it wrong, saying that FLAC squeezes audio files down to a reduced size without tossing out any data. Earth to Griffin: If you don’t toss out any data, you can’t reduce the size. What FLAC or any other true lossless compression scheme can do is toss out redundant data—data that can be perfectly recreated based on other data. The scare quotes make no sense unless Griffin has some reason to believe that FLAC is not a legitimate lossless compression format.


I was bemused by Steve Fox’s “Techlog” editorial in the January 2012 PC World entitled “Tablets Enter Their Adolescence.” It points to a feature article (and cover story) about the range of Android and other tablets (including, of course, the iPad). But what I found bemusing (if probably correct) was Fox’s assertion that all of today’s tablets really are in their adolescence and aren’t very polished. “If we could fast-forward to late 2012 and put today’s iPad or Galaxy Tab through its paces, we’d probably laugh at the crudeness.”

And the next paragraph, which I’ll quote in full (emphasis added):

This point was driven home for me when I pulled a first-generation iPad out of the bottom of my desk drawer the other day. What a clunker! It felt heavy, bulky, and sluggish. I was nonplussed: So this was the gizmo that sold 300,000 units the day it was introduced (April 3, 2010) and was hailed in the press as the Next Big Thing. Many early iPads are still in use; but plenty of others are now $500 paperweights.

Is that true? Based on Fox’s track record, I can absolutely assert that he’s no Apple “hater,” but he’s also not an iDiot (or is that iDolater?).

The New Groupthink

In this case, I’m not being snarky about Susan Cain’s January 13, 2012 “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (New York Times Sunday Review), but it feels as though these notes belong in The Back anyway.

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

I don’t claim to be spectacularly creative (although I’ve had my moments). I do see myself in much of this, however. I lost points with one manager because I wasn’t enough of a group person—I didn’t spend enough time going to other people’s cubicles to chat with them, even though my contributions to the projects couldn’t be faulted. I did (and still do) my best work alone. And, to be sure, I’m somewhat of an introvert: I can enjoy group activities but find them draining after a while.

Mostly, though, my preferred methods were becoming less and less acceptable over the last few years of my so-called career. Would I still have a full-time job if I was more of a team player? Dunno. In any case, this is an interesting opinion piece. For example, Cain notes that the great outpouring of stuff after Steve Jobs’ death seems to overlook that kindly introvert, Steve Wosniak, “who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.” Yes, he needed the collaboration with Jobs and others to make it all work—but he did a lot of it “alone. Late at night, all by himself.”

That does seem like an outmoded concept, as do single-person offices or even cubicles. (Cain, who’s written a book about introverts, says the average amount of space allotted to each employee has shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010, putting most people in “open-plan offices” where there’s no real possibility of working alone.) She offers other examples of groupthink, some of which astonish me. (Creative writing as a committee project? Really?) And live brainstorming sessions seem to be the norm despite their questionable success.

[M]ost humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

Yes, I need to read Cain’s book (Quiet). No, I am not surprised that many of the comments (at least the ones I could read—the site wouldn’t let me see anything but the “NYT picks”) disagree with Cain, asserting that only groups are natural, that only teams really work, that open offices encourage creativity—and, to be sure, that we’re all inherently group players (and probably extroverts).

Where’s the Lytro?

Remember the Lytro? It was “due in early 2012” starting at $400, and it would solve all the problems of digital cameras because you could focus your picture after you took it. The strangely shaped camera got—well, not as much hype as the iPad, but hundreds of laudatory stories, including one in the January 2012 PC World.

And then? It’s out—as far as I can tell, available only by direct order from the manufacturer. Most of the early reviews I’ve looked at say the same thing: The technology is (or may be) revolutionary (which for some reviewers is all that matters)…but the camera and photos aren’t so hot. Which may be what you’d expect for the first product using an entirely new technology. (The Mac-only limit—you have to have a Mac to be able to use the photos—that’s interesting.) The general sense is that it’s a moderately expensive toy that might signal better things to come—a bit less Instantly Revolutionary than the hype. Which is how life usually works out.

It’s Tough for the 1%

John Scalzi’s title for this February 17, 2012 post at Whatever is “Not Being Able to Scrape By With $200k is Usually Your Own Fault.” He starts with a Gawker link to an article in Toronto Life about making ends meet in Toronto if you’re only earning $196,000, the minimum to be in the 1% in Canada. The title of that article is “Almost Rich: an examination of the true cost of city living and why rich is never rich enough.” It’s an interesting piece, with profiles of several Toronto-area families scraping by on $200K.

The first profile certainly made me sympathetic for a couple that “usually find they have nothing left” at the end of the month after paying their bills. This is with scraping by (for two adults and two young children) on only $1,000 a month for groceries, $400 to $500 a month for wine, $400 for dining out, $280 for phone/cable/internet, and $2,500 for daycare. No investments or savings. The second couple is in their early 80s and buys a brand-new Mercedes once every three years—and spends $15,000 a year on four months in Myrtle Beach each year. How about a 37-year-old single man in a one-bedroom apartment who somehow has trouble getting by on $165,000 a year? This poor fellow can only afford $800/month for wine—for one person—and $1,400 on groceries and dining out, plus $1,000 per month for clothes. Oh, and $10K/year for travel.

Some of the families profiled are not wealthy, in the sense that they don’t have substantial savings. But they are most assuredly comfortable and making some choices some of us wouldn’t be able to make or at least wouldn’t choose to make. ($800 a month for wine and $1,000 per month for clothes? For one man?)

Scalzi chooses this as the seminal “bring the revolution!” paragraph:

Then there’s the stuff that fills our houses—the calibre of which is the subject of intense, unspoken competition among my peers and neighbours. During my entire childhood, spent in a comfortable lower-upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Montreal, I am quite sure that my mother did not waste a single moment worrying about replacing her laminate kitchen counters with granite or marble. There was no such thing as a $1,000 Bugaboo stroller, or anything like it. You could host a casual weekend party without spending a fortune on artisanal cheeses. Living the good life simply wasn’t the full-time, across-the-retail-spectrum pursuit it has now become.

So your neighbors are forcing you to spend outrageous sums? Truly? Bullshit. If that’s true, you need different neighbors.

As Scalzi points out, “the 1%” are a heterogeneous lot. People with household incomes of a mere $200,000 a year look at Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers with seven-figure or eight-figure annual incomes and feel poor by comparison.

The 99% of the 1% do not have helipads and supermodels and dormitories or libraries named after them at their elite school alma maters; they have mortgages and expenses and their kids’ educations will be a non-trivial percentage of their total net worth. So if you’re on the bottom rung of society’s topmost ladder, you’re going to feel you have more in common with the middle class than with the stinkin’ rich, because as a practical matter you do.

But, as Scalzi says, that doesn’t mean you’re actually middle class—and when you’re complaining about making ends meet and spend $1,000 a month on clothes, people who really are middle or lower class are going to look at you funny.

Scalzi offers four bits of good advice for people getting by on a mere $200K: Learn how to budget, stop competing with your neighbors, “when in public, please shut the fuck up about how difficult your life is”—and if you really are having trouble, well, learn how to budget.

Now, you might say, hey, the people of the 99% are as clueless about my financial issues as I am to theirs, so why is it that I’ll get crap for it and they don’t? Because they have less money, stupid. They are suffering every other economic penalty imaginable; it’s not unreasonable for the social penalty for economic cluelessness to be just about the only thing that vectors upward. The fact you can brood about this at the lake house over the weekend should put this problem of yours in perspective.

The 4K Scam

Finally got an HDTV you’re happy with? Are you one of those who can tell the difference between Blu-ray’s true 1080p resolution and lower-resolution sources (e.g,, most TV at 1080i or 720p, DVDs at 480p)? Well, according to those out to make sure you’re always au courant, such as John Sciacca in the January 2012 Sound & Vision, “If your system isn’t rocking nearly 10 million pixels, then you’re about to fall behind the cutting-edge curve.” That’s right: You gotta have a 4K projector.

Never mind that there are no 4K sources unless you happen to own a movie theater. Never mind that 4K units cost a fortune and that you’ll need to upgrade your screen as well, since upsampled 2k (1080p, which is what you’ll actually be watching—and that only from Blu-ray) shows more “screen artifacts like shimmer, color shifts, hotspotting and mottle.” Never mind that you have to have a huge screen and be sitting close to it for the difference between 1080p and 4K to be visible. Apparently, the ideal situation has you sitting six feet from a 100” diagonal screen. (Go measure how far from your 42” or 54” screen you sit. Now think about a 100” screen…six feet from your face.) Otherwise, well, since you won’t see any difference, you’re spending money because, you know, you’re loaded.

It’s not just Sound & Vision. The February 2012 Home Theater blasts “4K COMES HOME!” on the cover with an exclusive review about Sony’s 4K projector launching a “resolution revolution” and two more stories about this wondrous advance—15 editorial pages in all, which is a lot out of an 82-page issue that’s half (or more) advertising. (The Sony projector with the feature review is a cheapo home unit: It only costs $25,000.)

It Was Funny the First Two Times…

The “Lirpa Labs” products reviewed in April issues of Sound & Vision: Slightly over-the-top “products” described fairly seriously, just close enough so you’d get a few readers wondering why they couldn’t find them.

The joke started getting a little old after a while, just as Sound & Vision itself started hollowing out—that process by which a good print magazine becomes a bunch of pictures, a little text, lots of ads and links to the real text (online). It hit rock-bottom this year, with “Celeb Bait.” Four full pages, roughly one-tenth of the total editorial space, devoted to “celebrity headphones”—except that these are neither clever nor subtle. They’re just stupid.

As are the renewal tactics of a magazine that I’ve probably subscribed to for at least two decades, maybe longer (maybe much longer under various names)—one I don’t think I’ll be renewing. Why not? Well, there’s the hollowing out and dumbing down, as the magazine offers more pretty pictures, fewer in-depth articles and dumber columns.

But the kicker is this: A renewal notice—the first one I received—indicating that this might be the last of many notices and offering me a price of $16/year. For a monthly that now only appears eight times a year. And that rarely has much of anything worthwhile in those eight issues. The combination—telling me they sent notices that they didn’t send and overcharging for what’s left of the magazine—doesn’t sit well.

I love print magazines, but it has to be mutual. There’s no question (in my mind) that print magazines will continue—roughly as many new ones are starting up as old ones are disappearing, and there are more than 300 million magazine subscriptions in the U.S. alone. But I suspect Sound & Vision will be a victim of one trend I have seen elsewhere: Being the also-ran in a category with too many entrants. Not that they’re necessarily direct competitors, but I pay $10/year for 12 issues of Stereophile and about the same for Home Theater, also for 12 issues. Neither one’s worse than what’s left of S&V and Stereophile is, for all its failings and orientation to the 0.1% of us, better written and more interesting. I believe I’ve received my last issue of Wired and looks like S&V will disappear in September. Maybe I’ll get to where I’m only 6 weeks behind on magazines.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 6, Whole # 150, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

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