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


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 10: August 2004


Trends & Quick Takes

What Rot! What, Rot?

Walt Crawford

“DVD rot.” Doesn’t that strike fear into the hearts of librarians and viewers? According to Don Labriola’s well-researched “DVD rot, or not?” (PC Magazine 23:11 (June 22, 2004): 76-77), DVD rot is real—but it’s exceedingly rare and mostly due to some early manufacturing defects. Yes, a few plants did have quality control problems in the first years of DVDs; no, there don’t seem to be many defective discs, and even people raising alarms haven’t found problems with any newer discs. The “rot” is aluminum deterioration, which could have several causes—but almost all recent failures come from mishandling. One form of mishandling may happen more with car and portable DVD players: Extreme temperature and humidity changes.

Like CD-Rs, recordable DVDs store data in an entirely different manner than pressed DVDs. They may have problems, but DVD rot isn’t one of them.

Tweaking Your TV

It’s not a bad idea, even if I’m including this comment for somewhat nefarious reasons. Most TVs are delivered with the contrast and brightness set way too high, yielding an unnatural picture and almost certainly shortening component life. They’re set up to be attractive in the showroom; that’s probably not the way you want to watch them.

Some DVDs have THX test chapters that let you do simple adjustment of brightness and contrast so you get as wide a range of color and shades as possible. Those chapters are just the beginning. If you get an expensive TV, you should invest a few bucks in a good test DVD so you can get color, brightness, contrast and other settings as good as possible. You’ll probably be surprised by the reduction in apparent brightness—but also by the improvement in picture quality. It may be less startling but it will probably be a lot more pleasing. If you have a good TV, you might look for a menu option to turn off something called sharpness enhancement or scan velocity modulation or edge enhancement; it adds a false sharpness to images that’s also more impressive than real.

Scott Wilkinson goes through a set of basic adjustments using Joe Kane Productions’ Digital Video Essentials in “Taking control” in the newly-renamed Stereophile Ultimate AV June/July 2004—which is “1:1” if you believe the table of contents, “10:6” if you believe the masthead (and the “issue no. 76” in the masthead is repeated in a circled “76” on the spine). Why the discrepancy? This magazine continues Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, the last issue of which was 10:5.

Now that the Worst Serials Title Change group is alerted, here’s the real reason I mention this topic. We have a great TV, albeit pre-HD: a 32" Sony XBR. So I should want to make it even better with this set of tests. I get to the first sentence in the actual setup and testing procedure:

Connect your DVD player to the display using the best possible link: DVI, component, S-video, or composite (in that order of priority, although if you must use S-video or composite, you’re not really serious about video quality).

Earth to Scott Wilkinson: In November 1995, they didn’t make DVI and component inputs for television sets—not even Sony’s top of the line. Until I looked at the back of the set just now, I didn’t realize how long we’ve had it, but it’s so good (and cost so much) that we’re in no hurry to get rid of it. We seem to be part of that 2% of VCR owners who immediately saw the difference between S-VHS and VHS when recording broadcast TV, and wouldn’t put up with the loss of picture quality—we didn’t buy a VCR until S-VHS came out. So we’re not really serious about video quality? Well, you can take your sneering comment and…oh, never mind.

If you do have a widescreen TV or any newer TV that you plan to make the most of, it probably will have a component input and you should use that to connect the DVD player. And yes, you should get a good test DVD and optimize your set. You might even follow Scott Wilkinson’s advice, particularly if you’re wealthy or nouveau enough to meet his criteria for being serious about video quality.

The Obsolescence of the VCR

“Is it time to retire your trusty VCR?” That’s the subhead on Bob Anosko’s editorial in the July/August 2004 Sound & Vision. For most of that readership, the implied “Yes” answer is right today (I believe, although I haven’t acted on that belief). For most others, the question is more a matter of “when” than “whether,” assuming people actually record with their VCRs.

Here’s a statistical point on the growing obsolescence of VCRs: Five years ago, some 23 million VCRs were sold annually. Last year, that dropped to six million. Estimates are for fewer than five million this year—and I’m surprised the estimates are that high. Meanwhile, DVD player sales went from four million in 1999 to 22 million in 2003 and an expected 24 million this year—all, I believe, U.S. numbers. A DVD player isn’t a full replacement for a VCR if you timeshift or take home movies—but a DVD burner or, better yet, a disk video recorder/DVD burner combo, probably is. Some three million standalone DVD burners should be sold this year (in addition to millions of DVD burners in PCs). Some fraction of those will include “TiVo equivalents.” It’s a sensible package: the hard disk for time shifting and a DVD burner for home movies and the rare show you want to keep. Since every DVD burner is also a DVD player and CD player, the combo offers just about as much convergence as most of us really need.

For libraries, the relevant question is “How long will circulating videocassettes still find an audience?” I have no sure answers, but I doubt that too many people are ready to discard their VCRs just yet (and there seem to be quite a few combo VCR/DVD units on the market, which might explain the remaining VCR sales estimates). VHS is clearly obsolescent, but 87% of U.S. households still have a VCR. VHS may not be obsolete for another ten years, with five years perhaps a more reasonable horizon for library circulation. More than half of U.S. households now have at least one DVD player. Those numbers certainly justify continued purchase of high-interest videocassettes, but not for too much longer.

Quicker Takes

I’m not sure why this bothers me so much, but it does. A table on p. 36 of the June 2004 Wired Magazine compares four CD-ripping services. You know: It’s just so much bother to rip CDs yourself, so you ship them all to one of these companies. They rip, tag, and load them onto a DVD, hard drive, or (in some cases) MP3 player or one or more CD-Rs. Then they ship back the CDs and the ripped compilation. Cost: $135 to $244 per 100 CDs, including shipping. I may think it’s a silly service, but I don’t have 2,000 CDs to be ripped. What bothers me are the last two sentences in the brief story:

Sure, it costs $135 and up for every 100 discs. But you can flip your newly archived CDs at a record store to pay for it.

Beep. Wrong answer. I may not care for the RIAA; I may think labeling personal sharing as “piracy” is absurd. But when you sell CDs while keeping a copy for your own use, that’s pretty close to theft—certainly unethical whether it’s illegal or not.

Ø    I don’t think this is a trend, but it’s sad. “Cracking the code to romance,” a six-page article in that same Wired (12:6, pp. 156-61). “Meet four lonelyhearts who are hacking their way into the sack—call them the dating optimizers.” One 33-year-old “single millionaire is “creating a fully searchable database of love” at SocialGrid. Another at Dating Syndicate uses the Friend-of-a-Friend open source protocol to build a “vast, distributed network of love-seekers.” A third uses “AIM Sniffer” to sit in a café, spy on instant messaging, and offer his own message when a suitable target—er—potential date is involved. The last is essentially a stalker (that’s even the subhead in the article), attempting to show the dangers of dating and networking online. All this sure makes me a lot more interested in Friendster or in actually investigating Orkut instead of being a passive member: Just look at who’s out there!

Ø    Harry McCracken’s “blooper reel” accompanying the silly “World Class Awards” in PC World includes two noteworthy nonevents. First the Microsoft Smart Display—the portable “tablet” that’s essentially tethered to a desktop PC. It started to appear in early 2003. It was expensive, slow, required XP Pro—and nobody could use the desktop if someone was using the tablet. It’s gone: Microsoft’s dropped the platform. Second, the much acclaimed and oft-delayed OQO ultraportable PC, originally scheduled to ship in 2002 is…well, almost maybe ready to ship any month now, perhaps. Or not.

Ø    Whimsy alert! I encountered a strange website, www.teemings.com/extras/lotr/. What’s there? Huge numbers of brief passages showing what Lord of the Rings might be like if someone else had written it. There are hundreds of these mini-parodies, perhaps more than a thousand. Some are just dumb. Some are remarkably funny. They’re arranged by the would-be author’s name, starting with four “Douglas Adams writes Lord of the Rings” versions and going on. Herman Melville gets four attempts, as do e.e. cummings, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, Homer and Robert Frost; some authors get more.

Ø    Latest data point in the death of the CD, killed by rampant piracy: CD sales in the first half of 2004 are up 7% compared to 2003. Jupiter Research’s Michael Gartenberg now says, “Right now, we’re not forecasting the death of the CD anytime soon.”

Ø    Wired News had an odd Daniel Terdiman story on July 8, “Bloggers suffer burnout.” Some do, unquestionably—in part, based on this story, because they try to meet too-high expectations. Jason Kottke of kottke.org and remaindered links says “You start to feel like the readers are depending on you, and…like you have to post something whether you feel like it or not, and that can be depressing.” Glenn Reynolds, the A-list InstaPundit, says that if he goes more than five or six hours without posting, people start sending him email wondering whether he’s OK. The author of Counterspin Central just gave it up—as have millions of others, most of whom never really did get their weblogs going. You can build in your own burnout: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos says “I’m always feeling like I’m letting people down if I don’t have any new stuff up on the site” and says “I definitely get burnt out.” Reynolds adds, “There are times that people want me to have an opinion on stuff that I just don’t have an opinion on.” None of this is unique to weblogs except sheer currency. Most of us suffer temporary burnout. I take at least a week off writing at least twice a year, in addition to vacations and speaking trips (where I never write). That’s easy with “regular” writing; it’s tougher with weblogs. From what I can see, most library bloggers understand this and have avoided the need for daily fodder: Even the Shifted Librarian, librarian.net and Library Stuff disappear for days at a time. Good for them.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 10, Whole Issue 53, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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