Trends & Quick Takes
Sick Culture of Nonstop Accessibility
Not my words. I’m not that negative on other people choosing to be available all the time. I don’t choose to do it and don’t plan to, but that’s my choice.
When Dan Costa uses that phrase in “Don’t send that e-mail!” (October 2, 2007 PC Magazine) it’s a little rueful since it follows this introduction:
This cycle of e-mail abuse has to be broken, and I need your help. I’m not sure when it started, but for the past few months I have been checking e-mail before I go to sleep—not from my computer but from my Treo, while I am actually lying in bed. This is a problem, I know…
Do we need Online Anonymous, a 12-step program for email/IM/Twitter addicts? Costa provides a list of “reasons not to send e-mail” in an effort to clarify the “ever-fading line between healthy productivity and seriously obsessive behavior.” He, ahem, e-mailed it to a bunch of colleagues, who added other good reasons—of which 29 appear here. Let’s not linger on whether checking email obsessively has positive correlation with healthy productivity; that gets into the whole multitasking/CPA thing. The reasons are at least amusing and well worth reading. You’ll find a longer list at www.gearlog.com/2007/06/costa_living_50_reasons_not_to.php (I guess the column gets written four months before it appears in print).
The #1 reason in the online column didn’t make it into print: “You’re drunk.” Neither did these first-rate reasons not to send email:
6. Reply All includes the subject of your e-mail.....yes, Stephanie Chang, Editor of PC… I am talking to you.
7. Reply All often includes your coworkers, subordinates, and superiors and can easily be forwarded to their family and friends.
8. HR is on there, too.
It’s a fine list. I wonder how many hundred copies have been circulated by email. Thousands? Tens of thousands? 
The cost of supplies for inkjet printers has always been troublesome and cloudy—troublesome because those full-color 8x10 photo-quality glossy-paper renditions may be costing $1 or more, cloudy because the standards for stating supply costs have been lacking.
According to PC Magazine, there’s progress. ISO/IEC 24711 specifies a test procedure for testing ink cost; ISO/IEC 24712 defines the types of pages to print. “In theory, yield claims based on the ISO/IEC standard should be fully comparable, regardless of the manufacturer.” As reported in the October 2, 2007 issue, PC decided to run its own tests against five models that offer claimed yields based on the ISO/IEC standard: a Canon Pixma MP600, HP Officejet J5780 and Officejet Pro 5400dtn, Kodak EasyShare 5300 and Lexmark X3550. Three of these are multifunction units, two just printers. My new printer is as close to a Pixma MP600 as I could find—a Pixma MP610, presumably an incremental upgrade. PC used the most cost-effective cartridge in cases where you can buy ones with different capacities.
“All the claims passed our reality checks”— in every case, the manufacturer’s claims were legitimate. This is good news. You have to understand that “per page” is based on a stated amount of ink coverage, typically 5% (about right for typical text documents or casual color graphics, way low for full-page photographs—and the standard doesn’t claim to address photographic costs). The cost per page for monochrome pages ran from 1.4 cents per page for the HP Officejet K5400dtn, a relatively expensive printer with big cartridges (the black cartridge yields around 2,300 pages), to 4.4 cents for the Lexmark, a cheap printer with small cartridges. I was delighted to see that the Pixma ran less than three cents per monochrome page and less than a dime per color page—but I still print most pages in “fast mode,” using half as much ink per page.
The article also considers total cost of ownership for light-duty and heavy-duty use over three years. While the big Officejet would cost the least for supplies over three years, it would be almost the most expensive as a light-duty printer because the purchase price is high; the Lexmark would cost the most to run but the least overall—if you average 80 monochrome and 20 color pages per month (that’s very light use). If you’re what I’d consider a medium user but they call “heavy duty” (200 monochrome and 100 color pages per month), the big Officejet’s the cheapest any way you calculate—and the smaller Officejet is the most expensive. Kodak’s “cheap supplies” printers? Most reports say they’re not really all that cheap—and, in this case, those were the only monochrome cartridges yielding considerably less than 500 pages. Sure, you can buy the cartridges cheap, but if there’s not much ink in them, they’re not bargains. 
That’s the title on Scott Spanbauer’s article in the December 2007 PC World, recounting his one-week attempt to give up local (“desktop”) applications for a week, working solely on the web. It’s an interesting account. For Spanbauer’s needs the move may make sense, although one wonders just what all those multiple AJAX sessions will do to responsiveness.
When someone says “basic e-mail, word processing and spreadsheet needs,” note that different people define “basic” differently. Your specialized and basically useless Word features may be ones I use every day, and vice-versa. I’m not a good candidate for moving everything to the web, even though my work mornings are primarily done using web applications (and thin-terminal remote desktop apps). You might find this possibility interesting, and maybe connectivity won’t be an issue for you. Worth a read. 
To kick off PC Magazine’s second quarter-century, Lance Ulanoff offers his own projection of what he thinks life will be like in 2032—or, apparently, what he’d like life to be like. There’s a “telepresence android robot” doing all sorts of stuff, including attaching an 8x10 foot 3mm. thick OLED TV screen in whatever room he happens to be using. The car is of course on autopilot (stop me if you’ve heard this one before…), since all sorts of embedded sensors and onboard computers assure that nothing can go. Thing can go. Wrong. He’s running Microsoft’s web-based spreadsheet on Google OS. Medical nanobots take care of health problems. His “Acer/Gateway/Lenovo Thinkfold” has 128GB RAM and a 2TB solid-state drive—oh, and naturally, in the office he wears VR goggles and waves his hands around to manipulate data.
So far so good…and then he mentions a “red glow coming from my left arm,” his embedded RFID chip signaling that his son is in the building. His wife calls to say a new HP has arrived, an all-in-one with a 21" screen and “2-inch optical HD drive” running “Macintosh OS ultimate” and recognizing “my Epson photo printer, digitizing tablet, and Canon all-in-one printer” when they’re within a couple feet of the computer. He’s adding stuff to his Facebook page and thinking about a blog post. There’s also stuff about even more disposable gadgets—all of them biodegradable.
I don’t know what to make of this. I fully anticipate being around in 2032, but I sure don’t plan to have an embedded RFID chip in my arm. Nor, frankly, do I expect to see autopiloted cars in my lifetime, interesting as that might be. Unless everyone signs up for self-driving cars and highways, I just don’t see how it can work—nor do I see where the trillions of dollars to convert the roadways will come from. As for medical nanobots—well, maybe.
What surprises me more is the conservatism. HP still being a dominant PC maker? Using an optical drive in 2032? Having both an Epson printer and Canon multifunction printer—and both blogging and maintaining Facebook pages? As for the mobile telepresence android robot (“roughly 5 feet tall and with the strength of a preteen,” navigating the house on a Segway-balanced body, choosing matching clothes”), I think we’ve been promised multifunctional intelligent mobile household robots almost as long as we’ve been promised self-driving cars. Doesn’t mean it might not happen some day. Check back with me in 25 years…that would be, let’s see, C&I 33, whole issue 425 or thereabouts—if I’m still doing C&I! 
Two commentaries on sound quality in an age of iPods appeared late last year in general-interest media. The sad one is Terry Teachout’s “The deaf audiophile” in the November 10, 2007 Wall Street Journal online. Teachout thinks the iPod might be “the most culturally consequential” invention of the past decade—and says it and other players “are driving producers and engineers nuts.” Teachout refers back to a September 2007 column saying that people in the music industry “increasingly assume their recordings will be heard as MP3s on an iPod music player” and are tailoring the product to sound best that way.
The problem is “that MP3 files are highly compressed” (not necessarily true) so “a piece of recorded music that is loaded onto an iPod and listened to on inexpensive earbuds doesn’t sound as good as the same music recorded on a CD and played back on a stereo system equipped with high-quality speakers or headphones.” Again, not necessarily true, depending on how the music is stored and what’s meant by “inexpensive earbuds.” Not all $10-$50 earbuds and headphones are as crappy as the ones supplied by Apple and most other MP3 player makers. Industry professionals say the result “is music that is loud but harsh and flat, and thus not enjoyable for long periods of time.” I believe that to be true for 128Kbps MP3 or similar formats.
Teachout doesn’t deny the charge. “True? Incontestably.” Teachout is “well aware that the MP3 is, musically speaking, something of a blunt instrument.” But he doesn’t care (and doesn’t seem to think we should)—partly because of the “near-miraculous convenience of MP3s” but because he’s middle-aged and has age-related hearing loss, like about a third of boomers. (He spent “countless happy hours playing loud music” as a youth, which means the hearing loss is more than age-related.) So he doesn’t hear high-frequency sounds as well as he did. “The good news is that I don’t care…much.” He says hearing loss “liberates you from the snare and delusion of audiophilia.” He asserts that recorded music can “never hope to be more than a substitute for the real thing” (true)—and that “Stravinsky is still Stravinsky when you experience him through a $10 pair of earbuds. He’s the point, not the earbuds.”
Yes and no. I have moderate hearing loss too, especially in high frequencies. I know recorded music isn’t the same as live music. But “Stravinsky is still Stravinsky” isn’t exactly the point either. There’s a huge gulf between replicating live music and living with low-bitrate compressed tunes played over crappy earbuds. That gulf has nothing to do with MP3 as a technology, nothing to do with flash players, and precious little to do with inexpensive headsets. Teachout completely ignores the most important part of the complaint about overcompressed music: “not enjoyable for long periods of time.” Which apparently has less to do with high-frequency hearing than with the nature of digital artifacts and overcompression. Maybe he doesn’t get fatigued with bad MP3 sound. I do, and so do a lot of other people. 
Fred Kaplan wrote “In defense of audiophiles” at Slate on December 4, 2007. Kaplan was seduced by high-end audio and became a writer for high-end magazines. He writes in response to Teachout’s article and a piece by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times saying ordinary MP3 sound is “good enough.” Tommasini says “easy access has trumped high fidelity” but also claims the compromises in MP3 are irrelevant.
Kaplan examines Teachout’s points from a high-end perspective—and, sigh, Kaplan also seems to think all MP3 is the same, that it all flattens dynamic range and smears transients. Kaplan correctly notes the varying degrees of removal from the real thing. In the end, Kaplan argues that only a really good home stereo playing CDs or LPs is good enough. (Yes, Kaplan’s another one who claims vinyl LPs offer much better sound than CDs.)
I’m tempted to say “a pox on both your houses,” but instead I’ll note my own experience. In my experience, high bitrate MP3—preferably 320Kbps, the highest rate supported—is, for me, indistinguishable from the original CDs, at least for anything short of full orchestral recordings. You’re still getting more than 4:1 compression. My $49 2GB Sansa MP3 player holds my 220 favorite songs encoded at 320K, and if I spend another $30-$40 for a couple of gigs of plugin flash RAM, I can keep extending that. My brother uses iPods—and loads them, at least in part, with ALAC or FLAC tracks which are wholly lossless. There’s nothing about iPods and Sansas that requires high compression; you just can’t load quite as many tunes. Frankly, I’d rather have 200+ of my favorite tunes than 500 to 1,000 that I care less about.
The other piece is what you stick in your ears. I spent $10 for cheap Sony in-ear phones; they provide good, not great, sound, much better than the junk that came with my portable CD player or the earbuds that came with the Sansa. For use at home, or if I‘m traveling for a long time, I have a $50 pair of on-the-ear headphones that offer superb sound…and the Sansa’s audio circuitry is good enough to drive them well.
On that $100 setup ($49 player, $49 headphones), am I getting the equivalent of a $10,000 stereo system playing the best CDs? Probably not—although, I must admit, I’m beginning to believe that in some cases, audio CD-Rs created from 320K MP3s sound better than the original CDs. (There are semiplausible physical reasons this could be true, incidentally, although I’m not sure whether I buy into them.) But I can’t listen to 128K MP3 on any headphones or speakers for more than 20-30 minutes without wanting to turn the music off—and with this $100 setup, I enjoy the music so much I tune out everything else and listen into the music.
Good sound does matter. You can get good sound with MP3…but probably not very good sound at 128K or 160K bitrates. Good sound gets rid of the irritations and provides at least 95% of what’s there, without requiring a massive investment and sitting precisely in the one sweet spot to hear the most from your high-end system. 
It’s always interesting to follow those with superior insight and insider’s wisdom. Thus we have Lance Ulanoff, the current Editor-in-Chief of PC Magazine and a man of profound insight. He’s one who decided and declared in mid-2006 that Blu-ray was doomed, that HD DVD must surely prevail. He’s backed down a little on that, but here’s another one. In an October 2, 2007 editorial, he says he expects that the deadline for analog TV—the date that analog over-the-air broadcasts go dark and broadcast TV goes entirely digital—will be “extended yet again, to 2011.” That’s part of an assertion that Google should not win any portion of the 700MHz spectrum (the spectrum freed up by the end of analog broadcasting, which is being auctioned off). Why? He doesn’t think Google is prepared to handle mobile. “Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint know this business and would surely build a better network than Google ever could.” Aren’t we all delighted with how well these folks are doing now? It’s an interesting attitude—essentially, that newcomers can’t possibly do better than established firms. Such as, oh, AltaVista in web search? In any case, I think Ulanoff’s expectation on the go-dark deadline is improbable; the steps to make the transition relatively painless are already in place and there just isn’t much outcry to “save analog TV.” But, of course, I’m not an industry insider like Ulanoff—I would surely never have known that Blu-ray was doomed, for example. Still don’t. See later in this issue. 
Ø Aren’t we a little tired of the “buying a car for a buck” metaphor as it relates to plummeting PC-related costs? The October 2, 2007 PC Magazine has a chart on the price per megabyte for storage. The curve is fairly linear and only covers the PC period (1981-2007, projected to 2010), from $700 per megabyte for Apple’s first hard disk ($3,500 for 5MB in 1981) through the first terabyte drive ($399 for 1,000GB in 2007, that is, $0.399 per gigabyte or about 0.04 cents per megabyte), to an asserted (and, I believe, unlikely) “.002 cents per megabyte” in 2010. That’s an astonishing curve—but the headline and text mess it up. The text says “you can have a terabyte for less than $200,” which certainly was not true in October 2007 ($399 is not “less than $200”—and even in February 2008, I don’t see a 1TB disk for less than $265), and the headline says “From highway robbery to runaway bargain.” Sure, the text goes back to the first hard disks in 1956, $50,000 for 5MB ($10,000 per megabyte)—but that wasn’t “highway robbery” in 1956. It was the cost of cutting-edge technology. Then there’s the metaphor. The text ends “If car prices had followed the same curve, you could buy an SUV with pocket change.” To which the only plausible reply is “and it would be one-tenth of an inch long.” 
Ø Jim Louderback has an amusing “guide to social networks” in the October 16, 2007 PC Magazine, comparing them to bars. He thinks of MySpace as a “first college bar,” LinkedIn as the bar at Morton’s Steakhouse (“a great place to further your career. Just don’t expect to have any fun”), Plaxo as a dive bar, Orkut as last year’s hot nightclub, Twitter as “open mike night at a comedy club,” and Facebook as, well, this year’s hot place. Don’t take it too seriously, but it’s amusing. 
Ø You might find “Junkbusters!” in the November 2007 PC World worth reading, particularly if you recently purchased or are planning to purchase a new PC. It offers tips on how to get rid of the “crapware” that comes preloaded on most new PCs—you know, the music services, online games, eBay ads, etc.—and includes “junkratings” for ten desktops and notebooks. Worst: a Sony VAIO notebook with 27 pre-installed icons in the Welcome Center (apparently not unusual for mediacentric PCs), earning a rating almost 50% higher (worse) than the next-worst Toshiba notebook. The two “polite” systems? Desktops from Alienware and Polywell. A Gateway desktop and Lenovo notebook were “mildly annoying” (a bunch of system-tray applets on the Gateway, a bunch of “helpful” utilities on the Lenovo). The rest? All “infuriating,” if not as bad as the Sony. 
Ø If I can trust anything in Home Theater, an item in the January 2008 issue is fascinating. It says the average plasma TV uses a whopping 328 watts, followed by 208 for rear-projection TVs, 193 for LCDs and 148 for CRTs (which are as inefficient per square inch as plasmas, but these days they’re mostly smaller, older sets). It also says Sony, Hitachi and Sharp are jointly looking for ways to improve that, aiming to cut power consumption by half, with LED backlighting being one technology. 
Ø Yardena Arar’s December 2007 PC World “skeptical shopper” column is about an unsettling new idea: Outsourced customer satisfaction. At some online retailers, you’re now offered a “100% satisfaction guarantee” when you check out—for a 3% premium. That money goes to Assurz, which gives you 90 days to decide whether you want to keep the purchase and reimbursement for all charges, including shipping both ways, should you decide to return it. That’s only if you just don’t want it—if the unit’s defective, you use regular channels. Three percent for buyer’s remorse. Sure does make some brick-and-mortar retailers look good by comparison. 
Ø Another December 2007 PC World piece discusses the “10 biggest web annoyances,” from dubious privacy policies to boring virtual worlds. “The expense of e-books” is #8, and there the commentary yields an odd villain: “Supposedly, much of the sticker price goes to authors, who receive the same amount of royalties per book sold, regardless of the book’s form.” Maybe so—but for most authors and most books, that amount is somewhere between 8% and 12% of the retail price, hardly the reason for ebook pricing. What the coverage fails to mention: Only about 14% of a typical book’s price actually covers the cost of it being a physical book (that is, printing, paper, binding, shipping). 
Ø This may be redundant, but it’s worth noting. PC Magazine scrapped its 22-issue-per-year schedule, going to old-fashioned monthly publication. That makes sense, since the 500-page issues that encouraged the more frequent publication have long since dwindled down to modest little issues. The first monthly is 154 pages but the second is down to 122 pages; I’m afraid PC Magazine’s glory days have long since passed. On the other hand, once again, two cheers for restoring at least some specs to product reviews. It’s an incomplete set and it’s not on all products, but it’s a lot better than we were getting for a while. And the smart car section seems to have disappeared; that’s worth another half-cheer. 
Ø Speaking of abrupt changes in magazines, The Perfect Vision for January 2008 arrived with a special insert page…announcing its “merger” with Playback, a free digital magazine. Subscriptions and accounting being what they are, that means I start getting The Abso!ute Sound—a sister publication—again, shortly after letting my subscription lapse. Ah well… I tried out Playback. It uses texterity to display pages and took nearly two minutes before anything came up. After ten minutes experimenting, let’s just say I didn’t bookmark it or sign up for email reminders. As for the final issue…well, a second announcement of the “merger” uses “it’s” wrongly; a writeup of a poll about internet usage assumes that anyone who isn’t using the internet at home or at work is using it at…Starbuck’s (I guess there are no public libraries in their world); a supposedly high-end home theater magazine can’t even be bothered to measure TV contrast, much less provide any verifiable information. I won’t miss it. 
Ø Finally, a few quick words about multitasking and continuous partial attention. A December 6, 2007 post at What I learned today notes some of the newer studies and articles pointing out that single-tasking yields better results, frequently in less time—and a December 3, 2007 post at Attempting elegance defended the blogger’s multitasking as CPA and a good thing. It’s quick because I added comments on each post asking whether the blogger felt they did their best work when multitasking or engaging in CPA—and in both cases, the blogger responded that, yes, there are times when they focus on one task and recognize that this yields their best work. Which means there’s no disagreement: Almost all of us appropriately multitask much of the time (it may be “time wasting” but it’s frequently essential for various reasons), but focus (which usually means not multitasking) is still valuable. As I said in one followup comment, “Much of the time, ‘doing your best work’ for that period of time requires CPA or multitasking, because ‘being there’ for a variety of interrupt-driven purposes is what’s happening.” I also noted that the few writers I’ve read who seem to claim that CPA is always preferable don’t prove their point very well, because the essays seem less lucid than the writers should be capable of. 
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