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

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 14: December 2004

The Good Stuff

Anderson, Chris, “The long tail,” Wired 12:10 (October 2004), downloaded 10/5/04.

Even though this predictive essay has the slight over-the-top nature that’s so common in Wired, Anderson makes good points. His thesis: “The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” Substitute “Part of the future” and remove some other universalisms and I believe Anderson is probably right. To some extent, it’s not even novel: The difference between book publishing and movie production is partly the wealth of niche markets for books. Anderson distinguishes between Amazon’s nearly limitless inventory and Barnes & Noble’s 130,000 titles, but there’s a huge difference between even 130,000 titles and the 3,000 DVDs at Blockbuster.

The new point is just how far people go into niche markets—the “long tail” of the popularity power curve. More than half of Amazon’s book sales come outside its top 130,000 sellers—but that may be partly because those 130,000 are readily available in real bookstores, and many of us would prefer to buy them there and retain some retail business. By comparison, only 20% of Netflix rentals are outside its top 3,000 titles. “Only 20%” is still a big market, and Netflix has revolutionized the marketplace for documentaries, foreign films, and true independents.

Some facts are fascinating. Ecast offers digital jukeboxes for barrooms, with more than 150,000 tracks in each jukebox—and finds that 99% of the top 10,000 tracks get played at least once a month. With Rhapsody’s streaming music service, at least 400,000 tracks are requested once a month or more—that’s remarkable.

There are some questionable statements here and some extrapolations that I don’t buy, but those mostly come from the “digital good, physical bad” mindset that makes Wired so special. “It is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of out of print.” Maybe, maybe not, and authors wishing to regain rights might disagree. Anderson offers a breakdown of the costs for producing music albums and concludes that downloads should cost about 79 cents each—but that figure appears to exclude profit for the online music store. And he’s with prophets who say “the future” (there’s that the again) of music is “to move away from the ownership model entirely”—trust to the digital jukebox in the sky, paying a “flat” fee (which, as every cable viewer knows, will never increase) for all the music you want, whenever you want it.

Worth reading, for all its faults.

Lasica, J.D., “Balancing act: How news portals serve up political stories,” Online Journalism Review, posted 9/23/04.

Confession: I used to check OJR regularly, but it seemed to go dormant for a while and left my bookmarks. That may have been a mistake, based on this discussion of Google News and other news aggregators. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noted something odd and disturbing in Google News of late: Political stories show a decidedly conservative slant, with high-ranking links sometimes leading to places I’d consider part of the fringe right.

J.D. Lasica found that Google News and Yahoo News were both willing to explain how they acquire and display political news. The subheading for Google News is “Unintentionally skewing to the right?” and I’ll be charitable enough to assume that’s true of my neighbors. (Google headquarters is about half a mile from RLG headquarters.) Google News “scours” 7,000 “information” sources, 4,500 of them English-speaking; a “sourcing team” decides who should be tracked. Lasica says Google News “most astonishing accomplishment is that it’s produced entirely by computer algorithm” and notes the company’s apparent delight in the fact that it has no editors or reporters. The process is far from flawless, as any user knows: Misplaced photos—and missing major news. The Columbia disaster didn’t show up for more than an hour.

But that’s not the disturbing part. “It’s been puzzling to read Google News’ takes on John Kerry and George W. Bush over the past month.” On August 24, users clicking on “John Kerry” got a first page of 100 search results including items from Useless-Knowledge, Enter Stage Right, BushCountry, Intellectual Conservative,,, WorldNetDaily, and more. There was one pro-Kerry item, 34 anti-Kerry items “from the second-tier websites,” and a bunch of mainstream items from both sides (NPR—but also the Washington Times). “By contrast, a search on George Bush or George W. Bush typically results in a fairly neutral, evenly balanced set of results…with many of the same small conservative sites showing up to sing the president’s praises.”

Google’s people claim not to know how this could happen. Lasica’s article discusses the ranking algorithms, which aren’t the same as those in Google’s web search. Krishna Bharat, chief scientist for Google News, says it’s showing you “the world the way it is” and thinks typing in “Kerry” would yield a more balanced set of results—“but that ignores the fact that Google News itself uses ‘John Kerry’ as the preferred search term…”

Ethan Zuckerman, now at Harvard’s Berkman Center, has a theory: Indeed, “Kerry” will turn up mainstream sources because they usually refer to a politician by last name in a headline and after the first occurrence—where the nutcases (oops, sorry, “alternative news sources” like WorldNetDaily) typically use “John Kerry” throughout. He does wonder “why some of these wacky sites make the cut.” One Web site developer and search-engine optimizer has an idea: He works with a conservative news site to help it place high in Google News.

Yahoo News, on the other hand, uses “news partners,” mostly major news organizations—and it has an editorial staff. Jeff Birkeland, product manager, says, “News is far too human of an endeavor to rely 100 percent on automation.” He also notes that Yahoo! works with “news partners who are in the accuracy business.”

Pohlmann, Ken C., “A call to ears,” Sound & Vision 69:8 (October 2004): 39.

Pohlmann, in his regular “Digital Horizons” column, complains that people aren’t paying enough attention to sound quality—as opposed to the old days when audiophiles “hotly debated the sonic merits of every piece of equipment.” His real complaint?

Any piece of junk equipment that has a “Digital Quality” sticker on it is given a free pass. People shrug their shoulders and think it must sound good. After all, it is Digital Quality. That is so wrong for so many reasons that it makes me hyperventilate.

He mentions the most important reason it’s wrong: “More and more of the music we hear has been perceptually coded, or compressed”—e.g., MP3, AAC, and the rest. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against MP3 files. They can sound amazingly good. What I am against is the idea that anything digital is okay.”

Sure, Ken, except for one thing. Within the audio press, I know of no writer who’s pushed the “If it’s digital, it’s better” line harder than Ken C. Pohlmann. Not always, to be sure, but Pohlmann usually seems to favor the new over the old, the digital over the analog, high-tech over low-tech. And people have been listening—or, rather, they haven’t been listening. My sense is that the most common effect of over-compressed music is that you don’t want to listen to it very long. You don’t say “That sounds like crap,” you just stop listening.

Now Pohlmann’s saying what some of us have said for years: “Listen to a CD, then listen to your MP3s for things like changes in timbre, bursts of noise, weird swirling sounds, and shifts in stereo imaging.” Or just see whether you find yourself spending more time listening to the CD than to the 128K MP3 version.

Ken’s complaint is right. Too bad he’s been part of the problem.

Scott, David M., “Where’s the content?” EContent 27:9 (October 2004): 48.

Scott discusses his split week in early June: the first half at the Special Libraries Association conference and the second half at the Securities Industry Association. He notes that the information industry seems to be making a comeback, that conversations in exhibits were upbeat, that excitement is back. XML is hot in “our industry” (which for Scott is the “marketing of information products and services).

He is a little disconcerted about one lack, which seems natural enough for SIA but unfortunate for SLA. “At SLA and SIA, I heard a great deal about technology, applications, and solutions, but I found very few exhibitors talking about the actual information that flows through their products…. While technology discussions were everywhere, finding someone talking thoughtfully about content was nearly impossible.”

Most library conferences I attend still include healthy amounts of content-oriented programs and exhibits—the what of libraries, not just the high-tech how. I don’t attend SLA. If Scott’s right about the lack of such discussion, he’s also right in his closing sentence: “That’s a shame really: after all, we’re in the content business.”

“Should I rip this,” London News Review, September 8, 2004. music/should_i_rip_this.html

It’s just a one-page flowchart, but it’s truly fascinating—although some of the advice relates more to UK law than U.S. law. A “fair” number of boxes have to do with the ethical question “Is this fair?” rather than legal copyright issues—but it’s one of the most nuanced ethical considerations I’ve seen, at least most of the time. Worth a look, even if you don’t (and I may not) agree with all of the decisions.

Thouless, Robert H., Straight and crooked thinking, 1930, 1953, 1974, Pan Books; “Thirty-eight dishonest tricks” excerpted by Birger Nielsen at

An odd little list from an old book on logic, or rather “straight and crooked thinking.” Thouless didn’t go for a standard collection of logical fallacies (or “fallacies” as he put it); instead, he wanted to provide a list that “can be conveniently used for detecting dishonest modes of thought.” At one point, I knew all the logical fallacies; since then, I’ve come to realize that some “fallacies” in formal logic are real-world necessities (e.g., my ad hominem Perspective in Cites & Insights 3:2). This list is a little different; you may find it interesting if not entirely persuasive. In five pages, Thouless lists the 38 “dishonest tricks” and offers ways of dealing with each of them.

Given his use of “crooked thinking” in the introduction, the first “dishonest trick” is an interesting one: “The use of emotionally toned words.” To me, “crooked” is emotionally charged, but maybe that’s just me. Just a few of the others:

Ø    2. Making a statement in which “all” is implied but “some” is true.

Ø    3. Proof by selected instances.

Ø    4. Extension of an opponent’s proposition by contradiction or by misrepresentation of it.

Ø    6. Diversion to another question, to a side issue, or by irrelevant objection.

Ø    15. Putting forward a tautology…as if it were a factual judgement.

Ø    18. The use of a dilemma which ignores a continuous series of possibilities between the two extremes presented.

Ø    19. The use of the fact of continuity between them to throw doubt on a real difference between two things…

Ø    21.Suggestion by repeated affirmation.

Ø    23. Suggestion by prestige.

Ø    25. Prestige by the use of pseudo-technical jargon.

I probably spend too much time objecting to #2 or its contemporary version, “We all” and “Everyone,” where “all” is stated rather than implied. “Proof by selected instances” is a classic. #4 might also be stated as reductio ad absurdum, “disproof” by claiming an extreme case, and it’s a tough one to avoid. (In one way, it’s the “slippery slope” argument, and sometimes it’s necessary.) I sometimes believe there are too many people for whom #18 has no meaning, for whom there are only extremes—but that’s another discussion.

We all see #21: “If I say something often enough it must be true,” #23, the Great Man case, and #25, even where “pseudo-“ doesn’t apply.

Nothing major here, but a useful reminder that none of these rhetorical devices is at all new.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 14, Whole Issue 56, 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 Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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