Trends & Quick Takes Perspective
On Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax
In keeping with this odd issue, I recalled the perfect organizing principle for these mini-perspectives.
What’s a book—and what does Out of Print mean in an age of print on demand? In May 2007, Simon & Schuster instituted a change in its standard contract language, the point from which negotiations begin. To wit, a book will be considered in print as long as S&S sells at least one copy a year. That’s a big change from typical big-publisher practice, which is to establish a minimum sales level (typically somewhere between 150 and 250 copies a year) for a book to be considered in print.
Why does it matter? Because of reversion clauses—the clause any competent author will demand in a contract. A reversion clause says all rights revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Naturally, S&S says it’s all about improved print-on-demand and increased availability of books; the CEO suggested that the only books that might go out of print are time-sensitive books.
The Authors Guild isn’t happy. When rights revert to an author, they can try to resell the book elsewhere—maybe to a publisher who will promote it better. While authors can always try to change contracts, that’s tougher to do when the starting point deteriorates.
Simon & Schuster calls it “embracing a new opportunity.” The Authors Guild calls it locking authors in. (Source material: May 18, 2007 New York Times article and May 21, 2007 Associated Press article.)
Nicholas Carr recounts an odd situation regarding the cost of storage—in this case online storage (Rough type post, October 11, 2007). Seems a software engineer at Untyped started using Amazon’s S3 to back up his desktop hard drive. He got email from Amazon saying they couldn’t charge his account based on the credit card payment information.
Why? Because the charge was $0.01—and the credit card company wouldn’t handle that. Amazon waived the charge. Carr: “So utility data storage, at least on a personal level, may not yet be too cheap to measure. But it is becoming too cheap to bill.”
It’s sort of a silly story, to be sure. As one commenter did the calculations, that price must have meant the engineer was backing up 50 megabytes and doing no data transfer at all. Not that S3 is expensive—it isn’t—but the example didn’t make much sense. (At current prices, if you store five gigabytes on S3, uploading and downloading one gigabyte per month, you’ll pay just over a dollar a month—which is certainly cheap, but not “too cheap to bill.”)
Realistically, if your backup needs are that small, you can probably trick Gmail into serving as a completely free backup system—if you don’t mind that the long-term safety of your data is not guaranteed.
Back to Nicholas Carr’s Rough type for a cute little post on that always-right guru, Ray Kurzweil:
I was flipping through the new issue of The Atlantic today when I came across this announcement from Ray Kurzweil: “The means of creativity have now been democratized. For example, anyone with an inexpensive high-definition video camera and a personal computer can create a high-quality, full-length motion picture.” Yep. Just as the invention of the pencil made it possible for anyone to write a high-quality novel. And just as that power saw down in my cellar makes it possible for me to build a high-quality chest of drawers.
The tools have been democratized: “Inexpensive high-definition video camera” is no longer an oxymoron (depending on your definition of “inexpensive”) and today’s under-$1,000 desktops have more than enough processing power (and inexpensive software to use it) to do nonlinear video editing that would have required an AVID or a high-end graphics workstation a few years ago.
None of which democratizes creativity. I’m unlikely to write a great novel, no matter how well Word works—and switching to different software on a faster PC wouldn’t help. I’m unlikely to compose great music even if I buy the appropriate software and hardware. I’m extremely unlikely to make a great movie.
It’s not just creativity. Most creative works involve effort as well as talent. Better tools may lessen portions of the effort, but it doesn’t go away. A good flick involves a host of different talents; unlike most fiction (and nonfiction), it’s almost always a deeply collaborative proposition involving not only different kinds of brainwork but a fair amount of brawn as well. All the nonlinear editing software in the world isn’t going to give one of the friends I could con into doing a home movie the acting talent of Reese Witherspoon or Mary Kay Place or the composing talent of Randy Newman.
Michelle McLean, the Connecting Librarian (connectinglibrarian.blogspot.com), wrote “With many thanks to the biblioblogosphere” on October 27, 2007. Some of what McLean has to say (reformatted slightly):
I have been thinking about the biblioblogosphere and all the library bloggers out there, sharing experiences, successes and failures, thoughts and processes and more. I started thinking about what these faithful people have done for me, without them even knowing about it and I had to start making a list.
If it hadn’t been for library bloggers I would never have:
started reading blogs; started reading the library literature more widely; … started my own blog, to share my own experiences; discovered the amazing resources and programs available out there; participated in Learning 2.0 and become a champion for my library’s staff when doing the same;… been motivated to apply for and receive the scholarship and conduct the study tour I did in April this year;… developed increased confidence in myself, my skills and the new skills and inspiration I was receiving from your posts;… had the confidence to submit proposals to library conferences in Australia…
I have progressed more professionally in the last 3 years, than I had in the previous 19. Even though my job title hasn’t changed much, the work that I do, my love of it and my wider knowledge of the profession has grown exponentially…
And it’s all because library bloggers out there unselfishly decided to take the time to share their thoughts, experiences and more. They took a risk, put themselves out there, not knowing whether anyone would read and I again want to say thanks. I am more in love with my profession, my work and the life-long learning process that I am again engaged in, than I have ever been before. They are an inspiration to me, they give me inspiration to make the changes, small and large, to help make my library service better for our users—as a professional, I could not ask for a better gift from my profession.
I know some of the blogs whereof McLean speaks; I don’t know that Walt at random is one of them. But we do all (or mostly) discover and learn from one another. This ejournal is another piece of that growing set of conversations. Once in a while, we can use this sort of affirmation.
I have never understood Clay Shirky’s obstinate “Or, not And” stances such as his dismissal of taxonomy because he likes tagging. Here’s another one, couched as a response to Nicholas Carr: “New freedom destroys old culture,” a long August 1, 2007 post at Many2Many (many.corante.com). Bits and pieces:
I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?
I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player…
Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art.
Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world—a world of profound physical and economic constraints—from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it.
That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others.
The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints…
The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle.
And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.
And it hasn’t.
Shirky cites sales figures from iTunes for cuts from Exile and notes that some cuts are far more popular than others. Then Shirky makes one of those leaps of illogic that make me crazy:
The only way to support the view that Exile is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones.
That’s not true. CD sales still vastly outnumber iTunes and other online music sales. I’d wager that most people who like the Rolling Stones a lot either already own Exile on Main Street on CD or LP—or will buy it in one of those forms.
Shirky’s further conclusion, “that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones,” deserves the response Shirky uses shortly later for one of Sven Birkerts’ arguments (noting that I disagree with Birkerts on many issues, including the ones discussed in Shirky’s post): “This is silly.” It gets worse: “Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal.” Tell me that “octavo bookbinding” is the reason most novels run between 60,000 and 120,000 words, given that, for example, the Harry Potter books are at least twice as long. I’m not sure why Shirky’s so ready to write off the novel except for my underlying sense that, to him, new and digital are always better and replace old or analog.
By and large, the world doesn’t work that way. New “freedoms” only replace old forms if the old forms are defective. Of course, I’m also a little shaky on Shirky’s facts. He states—without attribution—that LPs were designed to hold 17 minutes on a side because that’s what engineers could deliver and it was enough to hold 90% of classical works. Except that classical LPs started holding a lot more than 17 minutes on a side a long time ago, I suspect shortly after LPs began: I used to own dozens, maybe hundreds of LPs with 24 to 28 minutes on a side. Should I suspect Shirky’s facts? Well, I suspect his interpretations…
Constance Wiebrands (Ruminations, blog.flexnib.net) writes about a classroom experiment in her August 16, 2007 “Media fast.” The class was reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which suggests that America is being destroyed by its worship of mass media and escapism. The lecturer, Dianna L. Walker, wondered whether the fifty students in the course could survive a one-day “media fast”—24 hours without any kind of electronic media. She wrote about the results in the Washington Post.
One student described it as “the grueling pain that was the 24-hour e-media fast.” Another student “was in shock” and “honestly did not think I could accomplish this task. The 24 hours I spent in what seemed like complete isolation became known as one of the toughest days I have had to endure.” Yet another “felt like I would be wasting my time” by giving up the “daily schedule”—”lying on my couch, watching television and playing The Sims2.” Apparently not doing those things meant the student’s time was wasted.
Here’s how Walker’s article ends:
I’m not from the we’re-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket school of media thought. I use most of the electronic gadgets my students do. E-media keep us up to the minute on information, facilitate relationships without geographic constraint, make logistics easier and sometimes help us relax and fight boredom.
But I do know of a world my students haven’t inhabited — a world in which we may have had less ready access to information but had more power to turn it off and reflect. I hold on to the hope that we’re not too far gone in our media stupor to recapture the idealistic vision of the era of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, meaningful discourse and human-to-human interaction in the public sphere.
And Wiebrand’s comment:
We recently had a weekend with no Net connection, but we did still have all the other usual diversions of radio, tv, the phone, games, music, and so on. I wonder how I’d cope without all that. I think it would probably be very good for me to switch off totally from time to time. I’d need to get over my fear of being Out of The Loop, though.
A day spent talking to people face to face, or enjoying nature, or having good food—and leaving the radio and TV and internet and iPod and cell phone turned off? Sounds good to me. I’ve done it, and doubtless will again. (Actually, all I need to do is leave the computer off for a day and skip the usual 45 to 60 minutes of TV: Too easy, as long as there’s light enough to read.) It also sounds like a very good idea: Once in a while, turn it off and reflect.
“No more f2f meetings…EVER!” That’s the title of Meredith Farkas’ July 21, 2007 post at Information wants to be free (meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/). But that’s not what Farkas is saying—it’s her quick version of a post on another blog decrying most in-person (f2f or face-to-face) meetings. The other blogger argues that in-person meetings maintain the existing power structure and that online meetings are more transparent. Farkas doesn’t see that—and, I’ll admit, neither do I.
I’m no great fan of scheduled meetings that always take place whether they’re needed or not. Fortunately, in my last few years in an office setting there were few such meetings. Most of us had changed to scheduled periodic placeholders with an implicit or explicit rule: If there’s no agenda the day before the meeting, there’s no meeting.
I’m now in an odd position, typical of telecommuters: Meetings are likely to be asynchronous online (that is, threads of email), synchronous online (rare), phone conferences, or face-to-face meetings for most participants with me on the phone. It’s early so far and there haven’t been many meetings. On the other hand, I did have two face-to-face meetings early on: One with my advisory group, one with some of the people I’m working for and with. Both meetings were enormously valuable uses of time, and I think both meetings accomplished more than they could have without people being there in person. It’s not practical to have many such meetings—but I can see their virtues.
Getting back to Meredith Farkas, she’s no stranger to effective teamwork done without f2f meetings. She was part of the “Five Weeks” team: “We never met in person and we never talked on the phone. And yet we planned what was a very involved online course. It was a beautiful thing.” She notes some of the reasons that particular online collaboration worked so well:
1. We are all tech-savvy and comfortable with social tools.
2. Most of us had met each other in person prior to this and some of us were friends.
3. We were a relatively small group of people. [Six, to be precise.]
4. Most of us can type quickly (which is essential to taking part in an IM discussion).
5. A lot of the work we needed to do we did individually.
6. Most of our meetings required very specific concrete decisions (what to call the course, how many weeks should it be, what topics to cover, etc.).
I think all of these factors made it very easy for us to meet and collaborate online. I don’t think that it would be so easy with a different group or a different task.
Then she gets to some of what’s missing in “virtual meetings”:
There are things lost in virtual meetings. Virtual meetings start when people come into the space and end when the formal discussion ends. They are often more focused. Things are mentioned in passing at a face-to-face meeting that become important. A lot of times, the casual discussions before and after meetings are actually more important than what goes on during the meeting… Face to face meetings enable the transfer of tacit knowledge much more easily than online meetings. I’m not saying that it’s not possible in the online medium, only that it takes a lot more to transfer that sort of knowledge online than just having tools that allow us to communicate online. I think many groups could have great meetings online, but there needs to be a real effort to replicate the things we get out of meetings that aren’t easily transferred into the online medium.
One of the comments on the other post noted other aspects of physical meetings:
It’s about looking people in the eye, seeing their body language and being able to react appropriately to all those nonverbal cues. It’s the ability to react instantly when a question or concern is raised, rather than waiting for cumbersome written messages to make their way back and forth across the ether. As humans, we’re built with a lot of communication tools that we often aren’t aware we’re using.
A little more of Farkas’ comments (it’s a long post, more than five pages, and well worth reading):
There are also people who just don’t do well with online meetings. Just like some people have different learning styles, other people have different collaboration/communication styles. We have to respect the fact that many people prefer interacting face-to-face, and not just because they are afraid of radical transparency. I have a colleague, a staff member who is at the bottom of the organizational ladder, who just prefers to talk to people over sending e-mails. It’s the way she works best. We all have different preferences and competencies. We need to try to find a happy medium. While we can work to get people more comfortable with web technologies, there may always be people who are uncomfortable with it. I think it will become less of a problem with time, but right now, a large number of people out there are not comfortable with online meetings.
I’m comfortable with online meetings (I’d better be!). I’m not much of a “meeting person” in any case. But when the call comes to fly across the country for a day on site, I’m likely to welcome it (all hassles aside). Sometimes, f2f just works better.
Oh Google, dear Google, what job shall I take? What shall I do tomorrow? Where shall I lunch today?
In May 2007, Eric Schmidt was in Britain and said this about Google’s plans for “the most comprehensive database of personal information ever assembled, one with the ability to tell people how to run their lives”: “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask [questions] such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’”
That’s quoted (from the Financial Times, presumably) in Phil Bradley’s May 24, 2007 post (philbradley.typepad.com). Bradley’s immediate response: “To be honest, it’s a damned stupid thing to have said, because it’s going to raise hackles everywhere.” It certainly did when I read it.
Robert Scoble discussed “distrust/disdain of Google” in a May 23, 2007 Scobleizer post (scobleizer.com). “Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has lost touch with how normal people think (if these quotes are correct, and that’s a big ‘if’)… We don’t want Google to know that much about us.” Maybe it’s typical Scoble that he apparently distrusts the Financial Times more than he distrusts Google—note “that’s a big ‘if,’” although as far as I know Schmidt never denied the accuracy of the quote (and it was being bandied about several months later). Scoble thinks “Google has to be very transparent, very warm, and very open when it comes to privacy and the data it’s collecting on all of us.” To be honest, I don’t give a hoot how “warm and transparent” Google is, as long as it actually claims a goal of being able to tell me how to run my life.
Remember when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out? Remember the story about someone getting a copy of the book in advance, photographing each page with a digital camera, and spreading those pages on the net using file-sharing and photo-sharing systems?
Seth Schoen posts an interesting take on that story in “Harry Potter and the Digital Fingerprints,” posted July 20, 2007 at Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deep links (www.eff.org/deeplinks/). Excerpts:
Perhaps the leaker didn’t realize that the digital camera he or she used — a Canon Rebel 300D — left digital fingerprints behind in every image. We downloaded a copy of the leak and took a look at the images with the open-source ExifTool, one of dozens of programs capable of reading the industry-standard EXIF digital photo metadata format. As the press reported, the camera’s serial number is in there, along with over 100 other facts including the date and time that the photos were taken and an assortment of photo-geek details about focus and lighting conditions.
It may be, then, that the leaker can be traced; there are several ways Canon might know who owns (or used to own) this camera, including a possible warranty registration or service or repair on the camera. A retailer might also have kept relevant records when it originally sold the camera. Another prospect: if images taken with the same camera were uploaded to a photo-sharing site like Flickr, their EXIF metadata might associate use of that camera with a particular account. (Flickr and other sites usually don’t allow the public to search by EXIF tag values. But it’s possible that Flickr itself, or a third-party spider that had downloaded all of its images, could perform such a search.)…
A large number of photographers are apparently unaware of [the embedding of a camera’s serial number], although it’s not a secret and is described in some camera manuals (as well as digital photography tutorials and other documentation). It’s also possible to remove (or change) the EXIF tag data using photo-editing software. Camera manufacturers say that they add this data for the convenience of photographers (for example, to help them keep track of which cameras and settings they used to achieve particular effects), not to enable spying and tracking…
The post goes on to note that some recent setups might even use GPS to include information about the location where the picture was taken—which could make it even easier to track down the person who took the picture (or, in this case, blatantly infringed copyright). It’s not just cameras. Apparently, most color laser printers add the printer serial number and date and time of printing to every page, in a pattern of tiny yellow dots. Apparently, CD burners embed a unique serial number, the Recorder Identification Code, on every CD they burn—it’s required by Philips’ patents—and that probably goes for DVD burners and DVDs as well. Got an illegal CD from you-don’t-know-who? Because of discussions with the recording industry, Philips makes sure it’s at least possible to trace that CD back to one particular burner.
I’m not sure any comment is required.
I unsubscribed from Britannica Blog after a certain brouhaha which shall go unmentioned; for me and my interests, the noise-to-signal ratio was too high. You may find it magnificent, and you may be right. Either while I was still reading it or because someone linked to it, I ran into this post that deserves mentioning and is well worth reading: “10 ways to test facts” by Gregory McNamee, posted June 26, 2007 (blogs.britannica.com/blog/main/, click on “Web 2.0 Forum”). I’ll just give the ten topic sentences, each followed by a paragraph or two of discussion. It’s a lively post, with expansions quoting sources including General Phil Sheridan, Al Neuharth, Marvin Minsky and—best of all—the Firesign Theater (“Everything you know is wrong.”) Here’s the list:
1. Trust not the first answer the search engine turns up.
2. Interrogate your sources as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday would interrogate a hippie.
3. Facts are stupid things, as Ronald Reagan said, until we give them meaning.
4. When evaluating the statements of others who mean for you to take them as facts, look for the passive voice.
5. As a corollary, beware the anonymous.
6. Rigorously practice the principle of symmetrical skepticism.
7. If you’re excited by a piece of news or a press release or somesuch novelty, wait a few days before you commit yourself to it.
8. Have a little fun while you’re doing all this poking around and investigating and challenging.
9. Be not dogmatic.
10. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we all tape this little note to our telephones: “Are you sure?”
Go read the post—including comments both perspicacious and, well, annoying. I’ve certainly found #7 useful—even when I’ve failed to observe it.
There’s little question that many (most?) of us use web applications more now than we did, say, two years ago. Some folks believe everything should be a web app. I’m not one of them. Neither, apparently, is Sascha Segan, given his August 21, 2007 PC Magazine column, “The trouble with web apps.” He thinks Google and Apple are betting “we’re all going online for our applications”—to which he responds, “We aren’t, we won’t, and we shouldn’t.” They’re great as front ends for remote databases; “the problem comes when you try to shoehorn things that can be done much better off-line into the Web-app mold.”
He describes AJAX (key to most web apps) as “like programming with your wrists duct-taped to your ankles” for any programmer wanting to use the full power of a PC. He asserts that no web app will ever be as stable and broadly compatible as a well-written “native app.” He regards Google Apps as an interesting way to collaborate, but otherwise, “c’mon, if you really don’t want to pay Microsoft for a word processor, just install OpenOffice.” There’s more and it’s interesting.
If you don’t recognize the lengthy subheadings here as portions of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (from Through the Looking Glass), you really should do more reading. I have an odd form of trick memory regarding the key stanza—I always think of it as
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax- Of cabbages—and kings. And how the pitcher holds the ball, And how he lets it go…”
Think of it as Casey at the Looking Glass. Don’t be too snarky about this essay: Remember, sometimes the snark is a Boojum.
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