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


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 12: November 2007


Trends & Quick Takes

The Trouble with The

How’s this for news: A librarian winning the Ig Nobel prize for Literature. That happened this year and Glenda Browne (of Blaxland, Australia) managed to attend the ceremonies. The award was for “The definite article: acknowledging ‘The’ in index entries,” which appeared in The Indexer 22:3 (April 2001).

It’s a four-page article—actually just over three, plus references. It’s also a legitimate article—Browne explicates some of the bedevilment caused by The as an initial word. When “indexing” Cites & Insights, I drop “The” in every case—and that sometimes yields slightly odd results. (I used to invert them, but that’s even stranger.) But…

Where does The Hague belong? (One answer: Use the proper name of the city, Den Haag—but I jest.) It belongs in the T’s. And if you’re indexing first lines of poems, all those lines starting with “The” also go in the Ts—but not corporate names. Or do they? Los Angeles Symphony goes in the Ls, not the As…see The Hague. Isn’t this fun?

Browne’s discussion of “The nature of ‘The’” is excellent and might itself justify the Ig Nobel—you might laugh but you’ll also think. Browne suggests double-indexing as a solution and offers reasons for doing so—and also reasons for ignoring the The.

If you use most PC-based systems that sort (for example, music organizers), there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find The Beatles and all those other groups down in the T’s—but some systems are clever. Sometimes.

I love the last sentence: “Similar arguments apply to ‘A’ and ‘An’ but these are beyond the scope of this article.” Indeed.

The Next Email

Robert Scoble has decided that Twitter is “the next email,” that it “will change the way business communicates.” He says so in the September 2007 Fast Company. Twitter’s “poised to make email feel as antiquated as the mimeograph.” And doing enough tweeting can “strengthen your brand” (you do have a brand, don’t you?).

How can Scoble be wrong or deluded? After all, he has 4,000-plus Twitter “followers” who get his frightfully important 140-character “blasts.” And where would those 4,000 people be without intimate knowledge of what Robert Scoble is eating or thinking (in 140-character chunks) or…? He now has “professional intimacy” with a few thousand of his best buds.

Oh, and wouldn’t Twitter be a great way to market things? Scoble wonders why Proctor & Gamble isn’t monitoring his tweets (or blasts) about the child his wife is expecting and sending him ads for diapers. Yes, that’s right: Scoble’s disappointed that he’s not getting ads through Twitter. “There’s an untapped gold mine in Twitter…” And in three years, everybody will be Twittering as something “we must do just to participate in the heartbeat of business.” Right.

Tomorrow’s Technology?

Once in a while PC Magazine loves to wow us by showing us what’s going to happen two or three years down the line, based on visits with their favorite research labs. So it is in a July 17, 2007 article—and along with the article there’s a timeline for 13 technologies “guaranteed to change the world by 2020” (emphasis added). Of course, that’s not really subject to challenge: If I walk an extra mile this afternoon or meditate for 10 minutes, that changes the world. It’s not what most people mean when they use “change the world,” though.

The hot new future technologies? “IMAX at home”—software that will allow you and a group of friends to stack six or twelve data projectors and use them to create a huge ultra-high-resolution image. Now that’s world-changing technology, right? Aren’t you aching to invite eleven other dweebs over so you can game on a 16 foot by 9 foot screen?

Then there’s Soap, the “midair mouse” from Microsoft Research—”essentially a wireless optical mouse surrounded by a fabric hull.” The inventor seems excited about the idea that this creates a mouse you can use in the living room. “Or in the classroom. Or even on the subway.” Wow! Finally a pointing device that can be used in a classroom! (OK, that’s snarky. This device looks strange but possibly useful in some circumstances. Heck, I think the Wii remote looks pretty strange too, so what do I know?)

Next? Topological quantum computing. I’ve just told you all that I understand about this one, even after reading the article.

Content-centric networking from Xerox PAR, “a bit like BitTorrent, but on a grander scale.”

Another research lab is right on the verge of having an artificial brain, true AI. This time it’s IBM’s Almaden Research Center “just south of San Francisco.” Hmm. I know PC Magazine is in New York City. I know much of the media thinks San Francisco and LA are the only cities west of Chicago. But a technology magazine ought to recognize the existence of Silicon Valley and that San Jose is more important for computing technology. The Almaden Research Center is 15 miles south of San Jose International Airport. It’s in San Jose, not “just south of San Francisco.” That’s like saying a place in Philadelphia is “just south of New York”—except that San Jose is larger than San Francisco Never mind. This group’s seeking a “universal cognitive mechanism” using a “massively parallel cortical simulator.” So far, they claim that six seconds of computing on a Blue Gene/L supercomputer with 8,192 processors, four terabytes of memory and 1Gbps bandwidth can simulate one second of mouse-level thinking—assuming, of course, that you can completely measure thought processes.

How about those sure-fire near-term world-changing technologies? A “real quad-core CPU” from AMD, as opposed to that multichip product from Intel. The first OLED TV, tiny and expensive. WiMAX, offering high-speed connectivity “everywhere” (in a few major metropolitan areas, that is—if you’re in the outbacks of Wyoming or South Dakota, don’t sign up just yet). And many more. Including a few familiar stories, like cars that automatically avoid accidents. Displays built into your clothing (the motivations for which I still haven’t heard). Oh, and HDTV being “obsolete” by 2016 because someone will turnout a 7680x4320-pixel UHDTV with “22 speakers of surround sound.” Presumably introducing one such beast (I’m thinking how many of us are ready to place 22 speakers in any room in our house…) instantly makes HDTV “obsolete.” Ain’t technology wonderful?

People-Powered Search

Yahoo! proudly announces it’s going to improve search by having lists of results carefully prepared by people who know what they’re doing. This should be a real breakthrough.

Oh, wait: That’s what Yahoo! used to do—before it became a portal centered on a web search engine (one that seems significantly improved of late).

No, this time it’s not Yahoo!—it’s Mahalo. And it’s from Jason Calacanis, so how can it miss? Did not Calacanis put together a bunch of blogs and sell them to AOL for big bucks? Now he’s got people making $35,000 a year (in Santa Monica, California, where you can buy a nice little 1,200 square foot house for $750,000 or so) to prepare hand-crafted search results for the most popular search terms. Using Google as a source. If your Mahalo search doesn’t yield a Mahalo list, it gives you a result anyway. From Google. Now, how up-to-date will these handcrafted result sets be? And why would we regard them as better than the old ODP and Yahoo! Directory and other directory projects?

I read the six-page article on Mahalo (and Calacanis) in the September 2007 Fast Company. I learned enough about Calacanis to know I’d rather avoid him on the road (he’s one of those folks who uses his Blackberry while driving, since I guess cell phones aren’t sufficiently distracting). I’ve read some well-informed bog commentaries on it as well. I certainly didn’t learn anything that would make Mahalo a sure-fire winner. But you never know…

Battle of the Platforms?

The title is promising: “Heavyweight battle! PC vs. Mac.” That’s in the September 2007 The Perfect Vision, and the article’s supposed to be an objective head-to-head comparison of home media computers. You note something odd immediately: The iMac is $2,000 with a 20” display—while the HP Pavilion Media Center m8120n pitted “against” it is $1,500—with a 22” flat-screen display. That’s a pretty big differential, particularly given that the HP has 3GB RAM rather than 2GB, a quad-core Intel CPU instead of a dual-core (and a little faster to boot), two 320GB hard disks instead of one 250GB hard disk, a TV tuner…

Higher speed, 2.5 times the storage, bigger screen, much better multitasking abilities? None of that matters, says Michael Penwarden. The “seductive, beautiful simplicity” of OS X beat out Vista and Windows Media Center—mostly, as far as I can see, because there are no troublesome choices. Penwarden suggests that behind the surface of the iMac is “a magical land populated by elves and unicorns where the images you see are brushed on the back of the glass by fluttering fairy wings” as opposed to the “Terminator-esque tangle of chips and wires” he’d expect to see inside the HP.

Toward the end of the article, things become clearer. Penwarden is a firm believer in the One Best Way, the idea that choices make life difficult. The lack of choices is his strongest argument for the iMac. He admits the HP can do more (it has a built-in TV tuner and DVR capabilities, for example), but “peace of mind” matters more than that. He suggests that using a PC means “you’re one errant click away from tumbling into the purgatory of tech support calls or blinking command prompts.” Yep, those blinking command prompts: Sure do see a lot of those with Windows XP and Vista. Whereas the iMac is “a beautiful piece of equipment that does such a stellar job of anticipating your desires...”

All is revealed at the end of the article: “Michael Penwarden is the former editor of Macworld Magazine and a former technical editor of Windows Magazine.” In other words, he’s a full-time Mac cultist, just the right person to do an objective comparison. (As for that dual-platform editorial experience: Windows Magazine ceased in 1999, back when there was an actual DOS and command prompt beneath Windows.)

There’s nothing wrong with preferring Apple equipment and software. There might be something wrong with writing comparisons when you’re so obviously biased toward the Apple Way.

Phone Ladies

There’s an odd and somewhat sad story in the September 2007 Fast Company about the “village phone program” that helped Muhammad Yunus win the Nobel Peace Prize. You may remember the program: GrameenPhone provided microloans to impoverished people (mostly widows) to buy cell phones and rent them on a call-by-call basis to neighbors who can’t afford telephones of their own. The first such phone was in Bangladesh and the proprietor started bringing in serious money ($800 a month, which in Bangladesh really is serious money). Laily Begum, that first one, is now worth more than everyone else in her village combined—but no longer thanks to the phone rentals.

“In Bangladesh today, the only one making real money on GrameenPhone’s wireless service is… GrameenPhone.” For a simple reason: Too many people have their own cell phones. While the “phone ladies” could make anywhere from $750 to $1,200 a year in the past (according to one account, there are 280,000 such phone ladies), the average profit per operator in 2006 was down to $70 for the year. As many as one in seven Bangladeshis owns a cell phone. The company’s still pushing the program—but it appears that it only works while a region is still filled with the poorest of the poor. Bangladesh may no longer fit that definition. Maybe this isn’t such a sad story after all.

The Good Old Days

The blogger at InfoSciPhi (infosciphi.info) got a little peeved about some email forwards, leading him to write “The ‘good old days’? What about the ‘good new now’?” on May 7, 2007. He notes tidbits from one of the emails about how wonderful things used to be:

Your Grandmother and I got married first… and then lived together.

Every family had a father and a mother.

We were before gay-rights, computer-dating, dual careers, daycare centers, and group therapy.

Our lives were governed by the Ten Commandments, good judgment, and common sense.

We were taught to know the difference between right and wrong and to stand up and take responsibility for our actions.

We listened to the Big Bands, Jack Benny, and the President’s speeches on our radios…

And we were the last generation to actually believe that a lady needed a husband to have a baby. No wonder people call us “old and confused” and say there is a generation gap... and how old do you think I am? This man would be 60 years old.

Well, old man, I’m 62, and I’ll admit that post makes me confused. There were certainly families without both parents when I grew up. My mother worked for a while, and there were quite a few other dual career families. I seem to remember some non-Christians around who didn’t feel that the Ten Commandments have legal force—and I also seem to remember graven images, adultery, theft, untrue gossip (false witness against thy neighbor), and for sure people coveting other people’s possessions. Tell me nobody looked with envy at their neighbor’s shiny new car, and I’ll ask what universe you lived in.

What else? The era of the big bands was in decline 60 years ago—but that’s enough of that. Whoever wrote that email is a little confused, but you know, you get to be 60 and the brain cells don’t function very abado tgowhv09 well any more. Blagfarb. Xsnrt. Where was I?

Here’s part of what the blogger has to say (it’s an excellent post, well worth reading):

Whenever I hear someone begin to express sentiments like these, I always wonder why they can’t focus on the aspects of life that have actually improved. You never hear them mention that the civil rights movement has made great strides in granting equal rights to persons of color and women or that a great many diseases that were near epidemic proportions in the “good old days,” like polio, bubonic plague, and cholera, have been all but eliminated.

You won’t hear a person of this disposition expressing how labor conditions and worker’s rights have dramatically changed for the better, that no matter how bad our current education system is today it is more available and functional than it was then, or that communication has improved to the point that people living in even the most remote places in the world can receive news and phone calls and access the internet.

The welfare of children and the elderly has improved dramatically, medical advances have added years to the average person’s lifespan, and Communism is no longer a threat, but more of an anachronism.

Overall, in the areas listed below, societal progress has increased across the board.

* health, life expectancy

* level of education, literacy

* access to information

* average wealth

* democracy, political and individual freedom

* safety

* equality between classes and between the sexes

But what about those Values we’ve lost? You know, back 60 years ago when there were no corrupt politicians, no drug addiction or alcoholism? Those days didn’t exist, as the blogger points out—any more than divorce, adultery or children born out of wedlock are new phenomena. One difference: Many people aren’t quite as judgmental as they used to be.

Here’s some of what this blogger hopes he’ll recognize when he’s old enough to start spouting off about the good old days:

I think I will have the wisdom at that point to realize that generalizations like these can often hide our deepest fears and might even hold sub-currents of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and elitism.

Even worse is the lack of insight to fully perceive that life is a constant turmoil of positive and negative; that we must constantly fight the darker side of human nature, the forces of nature, and ourselves to insure that change and progress are positive.

That we use must our knowledge and wisdom to understand others and consider that their views might have validity, that to see the big picture while looking back at how far we have come is the greatest gift we have at our disposal.

Learn from the mistakes of the good old days and maybe the “good present” or “happy now” will be somehow just as appealing.

There are a few things I miss about the good old days. When I was college age, the University of California, Berkeley (and, I believe, most comparable schools) was so well-funded by the state that my education was pretty close to free—college fees were in the low three digits each year. Yes, I worked part time after my freshman year; yes, my parents contributed a few thousand dollars each year (and “few” is the right word)—but I also graduated with zero loans. I miss that possibility for today’s students.

Otherwise? I’m on board with today, and plan to stay that way tomorrow.

The Wisdom of the Crowd?

Given that I’m unlikely to do a full-blown Net Media piece on folksonomy and the like, at least for a while, some semi-related items I think are worth noting:

Ø      Inherent vice (www.inherentvice.net) has a brief March 1, 2007 post, “Infozen: The dumbness of the crowd vs. collective intelligence.” It’s a graphic accompanied by some disjunctions between “collective intelligence” and the “dumbness of crowds”—the latter being areas in which individual intelligence does a better job. For example: “collective intelligence” is the new ideas created from the pool of photos on Flickr; “dumbness of crowds” is expecting that group to actually create and edit a photo. CI: getting lots of input. DoC: “blindly averaging the input of many people and expecting a breakthrough.”

Ø      Elaine Peterson at Montana State University offered the brief “Beneath the metadata: Some philosophical problems with folksonomy” in the November 2006 D-Lib Magazine (www.dlib.org/dlib/). She makes a potent argument against folksonomy as the sole scheme for organizing information; I’ll point you to the article rather than commenting on it.

Ø      Nicholas Carr talks about “Amazon’s unseemly tags” in a May 29, 2007 Rough type post (www.roughtype.com). What unseemly tags? Oh, for one French “coming of age” film there are “child nudity,” “infant nudity,” “nymphette,” “bare butt.” And if you click on one of those tags, you get—well, you used to get “a neatly organized list, sometimes going on for many pages, of other movies that users have tagged with the same label.” Some of those lists are going to be a tad unsavory, naturally. He notes the potential problems for Amazon in making it easy to find lists of movies featuring “child nudity”—and figures out that those keywords are mostly imported from IMDb (owned by Amazon). His conclusion: Commercial site owners need to track user-generated content—including anything that gets pulled in from elsewhere. “What they say about sexually transmitted diseases seems to apply equally well to data in the Web 2.0 age: You’re not just sleeping with your partner; you’re sleeping with your partner’s partner.” Incidentally, when I (reluctantly) checked, these keywords are still there—but they no longer yield lists. One assumes Amazon is doing some filtering behind the scenes.

Typography

Speaking of things I may not get around to for a while, there’s that special typography issue of C&I—which, if I did it now, might include a how-to on building a good basic “book” template for Microsoft Word. Meanwhile, if you’re even a tenth the type geek that I am, you should look for the May 2007 IEEE Spectrum and “The technology of text” by Kevin Larson. (You may be able to find it online, but I couldn’t retrieve the article in early October 2007). Larson is a member of the Microsoft Advanced Reading Technologies Group and tells us why it’s so hard to read from the screen and what’s being done about it—including ClearType, a technique that bothers Apple and Adobe but strikes me as eminently workable. You’ll definitely want to print out the article, I think. Pay particular attention to the figures, including the last one (which shows the same paragraph rendered twice onscreen, once using a new version of ClearType that can assign subpixel spaces between letters).

There’s even a little mythbusting in the article. Remember the paragraph that began “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer what oredr the ltteers in a wrod are”? According to later research, the primary points of the paragraph are dead wrong.

Quicker Takes

Dan Costa’s July 17, 2007 PC Magazine column discusses the reasons he spies on his kid (his term), even though saying so might jeopardize some friendships “and possibly my American Civil Liberties Union membership.” That’s nonsense: ACLU isn’t going to oust someone for monitoring their own teenage son’s activities, within reason. I find the final paragraph particularly interesting, as it marks a distinction between family responsibility and government intrusiveness:

I want the power to spy on my kid. But I don’t want anyone else doing it. And I don’t want anyone tracking me, either. Not my wireless carrier. And not my government. As a father, I have to look over Emmet’s shoulder, but I don’t need Big Brother looking over mine.

Ø      Should a new thing work either “the way it’s supposed to” or in a sharply different way? Andy Havens comments at TinkerX on a post by Bill Higgins that argues it should—that web applications shouldn’t look like desktop applications, etc. He disagrees. So do I. As he says, “Time and time again, I’ve used new software that broke some existing UI rule or convention…and surprised me pleasantly. When done well.” Havens does agree (as do I) that adding glitz to an application for the sake of sameness is a bad idea. On the other hand, the original post has a statement I really have to wonder about: “I prefer [Gmail b]ecause over the past twelve years, my mind has developed a very specific model of how a web application should look and feel…” Sorry, but that’s a crock. Past twelve years? Anyone remember the web in 1995? Do you really believe most web applications look and feel the same way in 2007 as in 1995? (Havens counter-metaphor: In this case, he thinks a mail app should look like traditional mail apps, so Zimbra would be more comfortable. Dunno if I agree, but it’s at least as valid a comparison.)

Ø      Iris Jastram at Pegasus Librarian has a great post on May 18, 2007 (pegasuslibrarian.blogspot.com), if you happen to be a Blogger blogger who writes long posts and wouldn’t mind Firefox users printing them out and reading them. She recounts Steve Lawson’s work to come up with a solution—one that gives clean printouts without disturbing the online style. If you’re in this group, go read it! The title: “Beating rocks together: Print styles for Blogger.”

Ø      There’s an informative (if challenging) series of posts at Good math, bad math (scienceblogs.com/ goodmath/) under the “Basics” category. I printed off posts on the basics of statistics, for example one on normal distributions that shows why mean and median can mean very different things (and why the “average” can be so misleading when a distribution isn’t normal) and another on standard deviation, that calculation that can help you determine whether distribution is reasonably normal and how broad a normal distribution curve is. But there’s also a good short post on syntax and semantics and others worth considering. Given my own experiences trying to cope with people’s innumeracy, I also appreciate his Basics post on innumeracy (April 16, 2007) and how widespread it is.

Ø      Phil Bradley reports (in a June 3, 2007 post) on a Search Engine Land report indicating that overlap among the major web search engines is decreasing—which means you really should be using more than one. At least for the first page, less than 1% of the results in the tests were the same across all four engines—and 88.3% of the results were unique to one search engine. Which four engines? The ones you should be using: Google, Yahoo!, Live and Ask. Not necessarily in that order, although that’s the order of popularity.

Ø      I like Lisa Belkin’s May 31, 2007 New York Times article, “Time wasted? Perhaps it’s well spent.” Belkin notes the ways we “waste” time at work (and at home) and offers evidence that we’re wasting more time because we’re working harder and longer—and that we need respites from focused work. For writers and anyone else for whom thinking is a big part of working (which should include all white-collar occupations and most other occupations, for that matter), maybe “the hours away…are the time when the real work gets done.” Bob Kustka suggests the problem isn’t “only” doing three or four hours of concentrated work a day—it’s the idea that you’re supposed to spend many more hours than that.

Ø      My Conference extravaganza didn’t deal with “unconferences” and other novel forms of conference…not because they’re not interesting and worthwhile (they are), but because I haven’t had much experience with them (although the Charleston Conference has always had the “Rule of Two Feet,” which is that you are expected to get on your feet and leave when a particular session isn’t meeting your needs). This was brought to mind by a June 20, 2007 Out of the jungle (outofthejungle.blogspot.com) post extolling unconferences. My quick reaction: “Great, but…” Unconferences make loads of sense—but not, I believe, as wholesale replacements for other kinds of conferences. This is another classic “and not or” situation. As for the impending death of megaconferences such as ALA Annual: People have voted with their feet and charge cards. This year’s Annual Conference had record attendance. Next question? (Not that things couldn’t change—but I’d be surprised if they change radically while I’m still young enough to attend conferences.)

Ø      There was a multipart conversation in at least five different liblogs in early August 2007 about being “the best.” I gathered some of the posts, but I’m not going to comment on them. I sense either a post or an essay on my own attitudes, which favor vectors rather than goals: I want to be better at things I care about, but don’t much care whether I’m “the best.” I’ll never be the best writer in the world; I believe I’m a better writer now than I was ten years ago (but could be wrong), and hope to be a better writer in five years than I am now. If I’d had a set of goals, most of the quantifiable ones (for professional achievement, at least) would have been exceeded some time ago, and I think I’d find that discouraging: Where do I go now? But that’s a quickie; more, maybe, later.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 12, Whole Issue 96, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Learning Network.

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