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


Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 12: December 2008


Retrospective

Pointing with Pride Part 8

Truly observant readers (if anyone’s reading these things) may note that I screwed up somewhere along the way: One issue that should already have been covered hasn’t been. I’ll try to remember to check in two months and assure that it gets included in the final episode.

I’m trying to take one telling piece from each issue. Hope it works.

July 2001: Number 8

Here’s part of an ebook roundup:

Keeping the Faith

Kendra Mayfield’s January 11, 2001 column started with a Forrester Research study and added a range of industry comments. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Forrester Research now projects a grandiose $7.8 billion in “ebook” revenues by 2005—but most of that figure is either PoD or digital textbooks, with $674 million estimated for downloaded (non-textbook) ebooks and reading-appliance books. The introduction strikes an overstated opposition: “With the advent of the e-book, many predicted the death of print books. Now, after a page-turning year of mounting hype, some are forecasting the death of e-books.”

Now that so many in the ebook field are rewriting history to claim that nobody ever suggested that ebooks would replace print books, it’s useful to keep track of a few (of the many) instances in which people did precisely that. Some counterpoints to Forrester’s study offer examples. (I’m looking for examples of the “many” people who, according to Mayfield, now forecast the “death of e-books”—ruling out even niche markets and digital textbooks. So far, I’ve come up empty. Help me find those straw men!)

Roland Laplant of Xlibris: “Ultimately e-books will eclipse paper books. It’s just not convenient now… There needs to be a lot of change in actual consumer behavior for that shift to occur.” (Emphasis added.)

Thomson Multimedia (the RCA dedicated readers) scoffed at Forrester’s forecast: “Those numbers are ridiculously low.” But then, Thomson asserts sales of three to seven million REB appliances for 2001 (which I mistakenly read as 2000). Any bets on the likelihood of that happening?

Accenture forecast a $2.3 billion consumer ebook market by 2005, “with 28 million people likely to adopt dedicated e-book devices.” They get there partly by an interesting technique: when consumers were asked whether they’d buy an e-book device if features improve, two out of three said yes. I suspect no prices were named and Accenture’s pollsters studiously avoided issues of book pricing—didn’t we all assume that ebook appliances would pay for themselves through book discounts? In any case, the question is essentially meaningless. It’s like projecting the growth of high-definition television by asking people “Would you buy cinema-quality widescreen TV at the right price and with the right features?” Of course I would, particularly if I get to define “right price” and “right features”!

Half of the article discusses e-textbooks, where there should be substantial potential—if the appliances are cheap enough, high enough quality, and pay for themselves. It’s a substantial potential market, but getting there may not be trivial.

I don’t believe further comment is required—except, maybe, that the ludicrous projections for ebook sales seem much more moderate now that serious companies have serious ebook readers on the market.

March 2002: Number 18

Just a historical note as a reminder that prices change faster in the storage arena than they do for computers. It appeared under “Why hard disks survive”:

Shouldn’t flash RAM have replaced old-fashioned electromechanical disks years ago? That was certainly the projection some years back, and flash RAM prices have been coming down. Michael J. Miller excitedly informs us (in his January 29, 2002 “Forward Thinking” column in PC Magazine) that, in a few months, you’ll be able to buy a one gigabyte CompactFlash card. For $799.

That’s remarkable, and Miller’s probably right that the RAM card is more durable than IBM’s 1GB Microdrive (which also fits in a CF slot). But for more general use, how much high-speed disk storage can you buy for $799? I can’t answer the question for a few months from now, but as of late January the answer’s clear enough: at least 320GB (in two drives), with money left over. That’s more than a 300-to-one price differential—much worse than in the bad old days.

It’s now roughly seven years later. Checking Office Depot prices on November 5, 2008, you can buy a 1GB CompactFlash card for $14—but you can buy a 4GB name-brand card for $40, and that may be a better comparison (particularly since you can get an SD flashRAM card for $8). So we’ve gone from $800 for a gigabyte to $10 for a gigabyte.

Meanwhile, what will you pay for a hard disk? You can’t buy one for $10, but you can for $50, which gets you a 250GB name-brand internal drive—or bump it up to $75 for a 500GB drive or $150 for a 1TB drive. That range comes out to anywhere from $0.15 to $0.20 per gigabyte, so the current differential is something like 60 to 1. That’s a lot less than seven years ago.

A more plausible comparison looks even better: USB 2.0 flash drives to external USB 2.0 hard disks. The best price per gigabyte I find for name-brand flash drives is $30 for an 8GB drive or $3.75 per gigabyte; the best price per gigabyte I find for name-brand external hard drives is $212 for a 1TB drive or $0.21 per gigabyte. That’s a differential of less than 18 to 1—and may explain why it’s becoming plausible to sell inexpensive “netbooks” relying entirely on flash storage. (Still unanswered: Can flash storage really go through enough read-write cycles to hold up to, say, four years of use as primary storage for a notebook?)

You can look at it another way: CompactFlash cards cost one-eightieth as much per megabyte as they did seven years ago—and internal hard discs cost one-sixteenth as much. Will the two cost slopes cross? They could—but probably not for a few more years.

November 2002: Number 28

Sticking with a technology theme, I was a bit upset by the ignorance of an item in PC World:

Technology and Magic

Maybe it’s just me, but I would assume that staff writers for personal computing magazines would have rudimentary understanding of scientific principles. Apparently not. In an October 2002 PC World section of “dynamite downloads,” the writer recommends MP3 WAV Converter 2.6, a $20 download. Here’s the beginning of the writeup:

When it comes to digital music, sometimes you want the compactness of MP3s, and sometimes you want the quality of a CD. MP3 WAV Converter makes it easy to have both. By changing .wav music files into .mp3 files, the program reduces them to roughly a tenth of their original size; it converts MP3s to .wav format for playback on standard CD players.

Never mind that any ripping-and-burning program also converts both ways, and that the same $20 will buy the Plus upgrade to MusicMatch JukeBox, providing far more flexibility. The “have both” claim is pure nonsense. MP3 conversion involves lossy compression. You cannot, cannot reverse lossy compression through decompression. Once the information is gone, it’s gone. If you rip at one-tenth the original size (basically the default 128K MP3 rate), when you “restore” the files to CD Audio form (.wav on a PC), anyone with good hearing and a good stereo system should be able to tell the difference. There’s nothing wrong with MP3; at a higher data rate (192K), my aging ears don’t hear the difference from CD on most music, and you still get 7-to-1 compression. But claims that reconverting restores lost information are ignorant at a level I find disturbing.

One update: My aging ears found that they do hear a difference at 192K—mostly that I find I want to stop listening after a while. I reripped all my CDs at 320K, the maximum rate for MP3, and except for some orchestral music I don’t hear differences that matter.

While there are new products that claim to restore some of what’s lost in low-bitrate MP3 compression, it’s still partly handwaving: You can’t restore lost information. Period. You may be able to make good guesses, but that’s not the same thing.

Midsummer 2003: Number 38

This was a single-theme issue: Coping with CIPA: A Censorware Special. CIPA is still the law of the land, and I believe this issue is still a worthwhile resource—particularly since some trolls are still going around claiming that responsible libraries won’t unblock filters on request by adults.

As the Supreme Court decided CIPA, that would appear to be an absolute requirement—and it’s worth noting that CIPA only affects images, not text.

I won’t quote anything from the issue; you need to read the whole thing for context. I continue to be proud of the special issue.

April 2004: Issue 48

Oddly enough, this was also a special issue, or very nearly so: Except for a brief Bibs & Blather, it was all about the proposed Broadcast Flag—which is still the proposed Broadcast Flag, if only FCC could get Congress to allow it absurdly increased powers.

I’ll quote two parts of the “NAQ” (never-asked questions) from the Bibs & Blather:

Why should I care about the Broadcast Flag? I try to answer that at the end of the major essay. On its face, it represents a significant lessening of fair-use and other citizen rights for future high-definition television broadcasts. Any additional cuts into fair use should concern librarians and thoughtful citizens (or even “consumers”). But the bigger issues, I believe, are that the FCC’s rulemaking represents a huge claim of additional authority by an appointed commission—among other things, giving the FCC power over how personal computers and recording devices are designed and whether they can be modified by users; that the MPAA already says this is just a first step, with the next planned step far more injurious; and that the whole FCC proceeding appears to be an end-run around Congress.

Why haven’t I heard more about this elsewhere? I’m not sure, except perhaps that it’s arcane and there have been other things to worry about.

January 2005: Issue 58

This issue opened with the following in Bibs & Blather—and I think it’s worth thanking YBP again for its continuing support of Cites & Insights over the last four years:

Sponsored by YBP Library Services

That’s the big news for this issue. Thanks to YBP Library Services, Cites & Insights won’t be running more “monetization” nonsense. Nor will C&I be going away. As discussed in the Perspective that follows, this issue is the end of one era—and the beginning of another. I hope to see strong program and conference reporting. I plan to strengthen the ongoing portions of C&I.

Many readers probably know YPB already, as your library’s book vendor. Their headquarters is Contoocook, New Hampshire, where the company was founded in 1971, and their office in the UK, where they do business as Lindsay & Howes, is located in the town of Godalming, outside of London. From those two sites they provide books and supporting technical services, alongside access to their GOBI database, to many academic libraries in North America and around the world. YBP also sponsors E-Streams, an online publication for sci/tech book reviews edited by Bob Malinowsky of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The YBP website is at www.ybp.com.

YBP Library Services approached me with a reasonable offer. The arrangement is straightforward, satisfactory, and poses no danger to my editorial independence or varying plans. (I’m no more likely to write hard-hitting editorials on library book suppliers than I am to start doing in-depth coverage of integrated library systems or mean-spirited commentary on regional library networks. Those just aren’t areas that I’m either knowledgeable about or prepared to take on.)

YBP Library Services will have no say in the editorial policy of Cites & Insights. I’ve invited them to contribute a “word from the sponsor” from time to time, although I don’t expect to see many of those. It’s a pure sponsorship situation, not the only one from YBP Library Services. Thanks to YBP Library Services, I won’t be hunting for a new paid writing gig. For now and the immediate future, Cites & Insights will be—from my perspective—the most important writing I do in the library field.

Special thanks go to those who saw fit to contribute donations over the past year. The level of donations convinced me that free-will offerings would not yield enough revenue to give Cites & Insights priority over finding paid replacements for writing I no longer do, but I do appreciate each donation. That channel is now closed: I’ve removed the links from the C&I home page.

YBP has never taken me up on the offer of a “word from the sponsor.” On the other hand, I am providing four or more essays a year from Cites & Insights for use in YBP’s online magazine Academia (www.ybp.com/acad/).

Other things have changed—a lot—since January 2005, primarily the loss of my primary income source. I’d dearly love to establish a sponsorship for the other research and writing I’d like to keep doing (see Bibs & Blather). So far, I haven’t found a partner for such sponsorship. Such is life.

November 2005: Issue 68

OK, so the missing issue is apparently somewhere in 2005. Just where, I’ll figure out later…

Here’s part of an essay—one that reflects thoughts that keep popping up from time to time but still haven’t gone much further. Maybe there’s something about an abandoned book that just won’t stay abandoned, even though it may never get written:

Net Media and Physical Media

Most of us rely on analogy to understand new things and phenomena and explain them to others. “It tastes like chicken”—I’ve heard that said about rattlesnake meat, fried ants and other exotic foodstuffs. TV is just “radio with pictures” (a little too true of most TV shows). A blog is “like an electronic diary that anyone can read.” Except when it isn’t.

Helpful as analogies are to familiarize and explain, they can also be traps—particularly when combined with the natural tendency to oversimplify. A blog is just an electronic diary. (Well, no, it isn’t.) An ejournal is just a journal that doesn’t appear in print form. (Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.) An ebook is just like a print book but with a dedicated reader instead of dead trees. (Wrong on so many counts…)

To make matters worse, many of us love to create oppositions and assumed replacements. Ebooks or print books. Electronic journals or print journals. Blogs in place of newspapers and magazines. Now that we’re in the third decade of widespread digital phenomena, it gets worse, as new digital phenomena are proposed as replacements for old ones. Email and lists must die, replaced by blogs, wikis, and IM!

We need to differentiate within net media, just as we should be better at differentiating within traditional media. Some listeners have been puzzled when I’ve said in speeches (and print) that there is no serials crisis for most public libraries, but it’s a simple matter of differentiation. Magazines (the bulk of serials in most public libraries) have very little in common with scientific, technical, and medical scholarly journals (the heart of the journal pricing-and-access crisis, which is real) other than that both appear on a more-or-less regular schedule and both may appear in print form with consistent issue-to-issue cover and internal design. Magazines have different financial models than STM journals. Magazine prices increase much more slowly than STM journal prices (if at all). Most magazines rely far less heavily than STM journals on library subscriptions for their survival.

But that also oversimplifies the situation. There may be a quarter million current periodicals, only 10% of which are refereed scholarly journals. Lumping the other 90% together as magazines may be right in some ways but is terribly misleading in others.

Similar problems arise when people discuss blogs as though all blogs were the same thing—and go on to lump ezines and ejournals in with blogs.

We need analogies. But we also need to recognize the limits of analogy. Blogs aren’t all just like diaries. Blogs don’t all fit into any single medium with any clarity of definition. Blogging software is lightweight content management used to create several different kinds of net media that we find it convenient to lump together. Maybe we shouldn’t.

These are half-finished thoughts, part of a continuum that began with a book proposal in early 2001: A plurality of media: Stories in libraries. That proposal resulted in a contract, which became the only book contract I’ve ever cancelled. At the time—2003—I was so involved with various columns and this journal that I couldn’t focus on the book-length project. When I did focus on it, I found it was no longer a book I wanted to read, which meant it was a book I couldn’t write.

That was then. The more I work with and write about various net media, the more I see the ideas in the book proposal coming back to life. With luck, there may be a series of commentaries, some as disorderly as this section, some more coherent. Over time, those commentaries could turn out to be a serial version of A plurality of media.

Or not. Remember my series of retrospective CD-ROM reviews?

Here it is three years later. I still have stacks of CD-ROMs sitting around waiting to be re-reviewed—now under Vista rather than XP, which may simplify the review for quite a few of them. (“Won’t load. Forget it.”—but Vista has lots of compatibility tricks.) When will I get around to them? Well, if I line up sponsors for other stuff, maybe never…

June 2006: Issue 78

The best essay in this issue may be “Thinking about Libraries and Access,” but I’ve used that as part of the PALINET Leadership Network’s open access cluster, so I won’t repeat it here.

Instead, I’ll include part of a copyright essay for its pure amusement value, although it’s a vaguely bitter amusement:

Put that Frosting Gun Down Slowly…

Ever had a cake custom-frosted? Traditional bakeries can do remarkable things; those with frosting-jet printers (I don’t know what else to call them) can go truly wild, since they can scan a photo or drawing you provide and produce a fairly high-quality rendition. All of it edible.

But here’s the sign at College Bakery, as noted by Clay Shirky in a June 16, 2005 boing boing posting: “College Bakery no longer accepts edible images from any outside sources.” Why? Because the bakery had been told it might be sued for copyright infringement if a recognizable image of, say, Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Tank Engine showed up on a cake. Shirky’s interpretation of College Bakery’s statement: “The risk of being sued is so high that we’ll give up on helping paying customers create their own cakes.”

Shirky thinks it’s stupid. “First of all, disappointing children is a lousy tactic for a media company. If a child loves Nemo so much she wants a clownfish birthday cake, it’s hard to see the upside in preventing her from advertising that affection to her friends.” And, to be sure, it’s a chilling effect.

Consider the infringement, if there is one. We’re not talking distribution here—“the image is designed to be eaten…within hours of its creation.” No unlimited copies. No easy transition to other media. “And what happens? The same grab for total control, and the same weak regard for side-effects on non-commercial creativity.”

One law clerk managed to get very confused about IP law in a long comment attempting to justify this. “Companies don’t run around trying to enforce their copyright because it brings them joy, they do it because they have to.” That’s trademark, not copyright; and even there, one wonders just how heavy-handed you have to be. (Yes, Lsoft has to gripe at people once in a while to retain “Listserv™” as a trademark for its list processing software, because it’s one that’s on the verge of being aspirined—of losing trademark status. Still, I’ll guess that if you said “Congrats on the new listserv” on a celebratory cake, Lsoft lawyers wouldn’t be in your entryway.) The law clerk equated College Bakery’s cake decorations with “stealing from another company,” and seemed to think it reasonable for this little bakery to ”negotiate with each of the companies involved to pay for the right to SELL the images those companies created.”

Jason Schultz commented at length suggesting a balance—that those who love copyrighted and trademarked characters should have some rights, e.g. fair use rights. You shouldn’t be able to do your own commercial Dora the Explorer cartoons or books without a license—but a cake? Even for trademark, it’s a reach: “[N]o one would ever start calling cartoons ‘Doras’ and birthday cakes aren’t even in the same class of goods.” As Schultz suggests, it’s really about total control: “The idea that someone other than the creator might actually make use of the character without permission is what drives copyright maximalist authors, owners, and advocates crazy, not loss of rights or even, often, compensation.”

I haven’t tried to do a photo cake recently. Do you need to fill out a form asserting that you took the photo and it contains no trademarked images?

April 2007: Issue 88

That’s when my first Lulu book came out and the first time a photo appeared in Cites & Insights, much less a color photo. (For the book version of Volume 7, also a Lulu product, I converted the photo to grayscale.) That book has sold something over 200 copies so far—neither a failure nor a great success—and is still, I believe, worth the money.

Why a book? Several reasons:

Ø  I believe the fifteen essays that make up Balanced Libraries work better as a book than as fifteen different Cites & Insights Perspectives. Some chapters can stand alone; some require the context of earlier and later chapters. It’s really too long for the ejournal.

Ø  I believe the book adds value to the ongoing set of discussions, experiments and changes in libraries and librarianship. While Cites & Insights clearly adds value, books work differently than ejournal articles.

Ø  The time seems right. Several books are coming out or have just appeared explaining various aspects of social software and “Library 2.0” tools and ideas for libraries. I suspect they’re all worthwhile. I list five in the bibliography even though I’ve only read one of the five, based on what I know of their authors’ writing and thinking. Balanced Libraries should complement these other books, working at a different level.

Ø  Print-on-demand publishing makes it feasible to do a timely book that I don’t anticipate huge sales for. “Timely” is a relative thing, but I can say that revisions to the text continued up to the end of February 2007.

As for the “what,” that’s simple. Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change is a 247-page 6x9" trade paperback (including bibliography and index). $21.95 plus shipping. Only available at www.lulu. com/waltcrawford/. There’s no ISBN. (That story was told at Walt at random.)

The book’s just over 71,000 words long, of which some 20,000 words are quotations from other people’s blogs, reports, articles and list posts. The rest is my commentary, interpretation and thinking.

I think it’s a handsome book, but of course I’m biased. The typography is similar to (but larger than) that in Cites & Insights. Thanks to my wife (not only the professional librarian in the household but a fine amateur photographer), there’s a lovely wraparound cover. It was taken July 20, 1996 in Papeete, Tahiti.

The price went up to $29.50, still less than most comparable books in the library field, a necessary increase when I decided to offer it through Amazon as well (the CreateSpace version, with an ISBN).

This issue includes a preliminary announcement about another book, one I also regard as worthwhile…and two books in between will disappear come January 1, 2009 or thereabouts. So far, the rush to buy collector’s copies has been, shall we say, extremely moderate (not zero, not double-digit).

January 2008: Issue 98

I wasn’t prescient when I wrote “A Time of Limits?”—you didn’t need special powers to see that too many of us were living beyond our means and taking the attitude that there was always more money. It’s a 5,000-word essay, one I believe is well worth reading. Here are the last few paragraphs:

A Time of Limits?

Are there limits? If so, will more of us come to recognize them? To bring in another long-time theme, will we seek lives in balance?

I hope so. I’d like to think so. I’m not arguing for budgeting (unless your spending really is out of control). For many of us, that’s a needless annoyance. I’m not telling you to change your ways—unless your ways are causing you to lose sleep or worry about your ability to sustain your lifestyle.

Lifestyles are overrated. There’s a difference between maintaining a lifestyle and living a good life. One is a matter of recognition, status, consumption; the other is a matter of balance and inner peace. It’s tough to maintain a given lifestyle if your income slumps a little or you have unexpected expenses: Those daily “needs” hurt when they’re gone. It’s easier to keep living a fulfilling life when your circumstances change slightly. Living within your limits can be good living, even if it doesn’t match an assumed lifestyle. There’s a funny thing about living within limits and paying less attention to status: You may find that you have more disposable income for things that would improve your life, even if only for an hour or two.

People who live within limits are more likely to make good use of shared assets, I suspect. They’re more likely to appreciate parks, to take walks…and to use their public libraries. I’m hoping more people will recognize the need for limits without having that need forced upon them through foreclosure or bankruptcy or an inability to retire…ever.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 12, Whole Issue 109, 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 Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2008 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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