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


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 7: June 2004


Trends & Quick Takes

RFID in Books? Why Not People?

Walt Crawford

That’s the dream of Applied Digital Solutions, according to a Declan McCullagh brief in the March 2004 Computer Shopper. The company “is hoping that Americans can be persuaded to implant RFID chips under their skin to identify themselves when using a credit card or ATM, a technology the company calls VeriPay.” The spokesman for ADS says he’s been “chipped” and that having RFID surgically implanted is ever so much better: after all, you can’t leave your forearm in a taxi.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center isn’t thrilled. “When your bank card is compromised, all you have to do is make a call to the issuer. In this case you have to make a call to a surgeon.” The short piece doesn’t suggest how much it would cost to have a surgeon implant this device—and seems a bit confused as to size. Late in the story it says some RFID tags are “half the size of a grain of sand”—but the implanted unit is described as “a tiny 12x2.1mm RFID tag.” Well, 12mm is roughly half an inch; 2.1, about one-twelfth of an inch.

Heck, you won’t have to give your teenager a GPS-enabled cell phone and insist that it be on standby. Once she’s chipped, you should be able to track him anywhere, anytime. As, presumably, could anyone else, including any government agency or clever stalker.

No wonder it’s hard to write satire these days.

Big Drop in Book Sales!

That’s the headline (in essence) and here’s the first sentence of a May 13 AP story: “Not even Harry Potter could prevent a big drop in book sales in the United States in 2003.”

So it’s finally happened? Print book sales are falling apart? A big drop—which should mean at least 10% by any reasonable definition of “big”?

Here’s the rest of the story, according to the Book Industry Study Group. In 2002, 2.245 billion new books were sold in the U.S. That’s impressive: Close to nine books for every adult, in a country where (supposedly, and despite two-thirds of adults using their libraries) almost nobody reads books. Those sales accounted for $27.1 billion in revenue.

In 2003, 2.222 billion new books were sold, accounting for revenues of $27.8 billion. That’s 2.5% more sales revenue, and a “big drop” of—let’s see, 23 million divided by 2.24 billion—1.02%. One percent.

An industry consultant blames this “big drop” on used book markets (particularly for college textbooks) and on competition with “magazines, cable, radio, music and movies.” (Not the internet?)

Does this mean that a 1% increase in book sales would constitute a “big increase”? Or is it only bad news that gets hyped out of all proportion?

Desktop DOA!

That’s right. “By the end of 2004, the desktop as we know it will be DOA.” That’s what John Morris says in his March 2004 column in Computer Shopper. Dead on arrival: Desktop PCs, RIP.

Here’s the solid evidence for desktop PCs disappearing by the end of this year: “By 2007, portable PCs are expected to account for nearly half of all PC shipments in the United States and almost 40 percent worldwide, according to market researcher IDC.” You say that having a slight majority of shipments in 2007 doesn’t quite equate to disappearing by the end of 2004? What kind of pundit are you?

Morris goes on to say that traditional designs are becoming obsolete and that all-in-one PCs and “convergence” devices, or “lifestyle PCs” if you can stomach the term, are hot stuff. Are they selling well? There’s no indication, and in fact he later says that for now, lifestyle PCs will remain “nice products.” Some of us might say that a Gateway Profile or Apple iMac sitting on top of a desk is, in fact, a desktop computer. More so, actually, than my traditional midtowers at work and at home, since both of them sit on the floor.

As far as I can tell, the quoted sentence in the first paragraph stands supported by zero evidence and refuted by the rest of the column. Morris spends lots of time enthusing over PCs with TV functions built in, and as with most personal computing writers, he either isn’t aware or doesn’t care that none of those PC-TV combinations produce picture quality equal to plain old TV sets. I suppose it’s like highly-compressed MP3 portable players: It’s digital, so it must be better. If you’re a hotshot technology writer, you can say any damfool thing and get it printed.

Cheap Ink? Maybe Not

Consumer Reports (May 2004) tested widely-available off-brand cartridges for Canon, Epson, and HP inkjet printers. Sure, brand-name ink seems awfully expensive—but this seems to be a case of getting what you pay for. Some offbrand cartridges turned out to be more expensive than the printer-brand cartridges on a cost-per-page basis, and—for printing 8x10 color photos, at least—none were significantly cheaper. In most cases, print quality also suffered. Their conclusion? Off-brand ink might make sense for black text printing—but for graphics and photographic printing, you’re better off with the printer’s own brand. Personally—and yes, I hate to pay the price for Epson’s DuraBrite ink—I wouldn’t take the chance (and, when it comes to offbrand cartridges, I’m pretty sure nobody else has Epson’s archival-quality/fade-resistant ink formulation).

Quicker Takes

Ø    It’s amusing to read true video enthusiasts bemoan the state of the world. Michael Antonoff reviews the Dish Network DVR 921 HDTV Receiver/Recorder in the April 2004 Sound & Vision. The DVR 921 costs $999 plus $5 per month (and you need to be a Dish HDTV subscriber, which will cost at least $35 a month) and includes two HDTV tuners and a 250GB hard drive—enough to store up to 25 hours of HDTV (although it’s already highly compressed, HDTV uses a lot of space). Great—but the introduction is more remarkable. “Video enthusiasts long ago concluded that watching TV without a video hard-disk recorder (HDR) is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment… Without the convenience of time-shifthing, HDTV is a source of unrelenting torment.” Whew. Good thing I’m not a video enthusiast (apparently); the “unrelenting torment” of actually watching a show when it’s scheduled would apparently drive me nuts.

Ø    Sigh. I won’t comment on Wired Magazine’s 2004 Rave awards in general, but the award to three founders of the Public Library of Science does require a note. The award is in the science category and claims to be “for cracking the spine of the science cartel,” an absurd overstatement, but that’s not even the problem. This is the problem: “In October 2003, PLoS published the first open source, peer-reviewed journal, PLoS Biology.” [Emphasis added.] Unless “open source” has some special meaning here that only applies to PLoS, this is a direct slap in the face to BioMed Central and the scores of other open access peer-reviewed journals established over the last 15 years (Public-Access Computer Systems Review among them). PLoS does publicity better than any of the longer-established journals and got bigger funding than any of them, but that doesn’t make it first. Or second. Or fiftieth. Oh, and somehow Michael Eisen now gets credit for coining the term “open access.” Good grief.

Ø    So legal music downloading seems to be doing well, even though you’re getting inferior sound at a fairly high price and with restricted use rights. So do the big labels recognize that more creative prices might make sense? You know, like selling older pieces for 75 cents, or offering cheaper “album” downloads? Not according to Real Networks’ Rob Glaser, as reported in Wired News. Instead, the record labels want higher prices for downloads. But then, that’s consistent with their continued claim that piracy is destroying the industry—even as more studies show that’s pretty clearly not the case and as actual point-of-sales records show increased retail music sales.

Ø    Speaking of music downloads, it’s always good to be reminded that the Jobs Reality Distortion Field seems to affect its creator as well as those around him. Here’s what Steve Jobs said about iTunes on its first anniversary: “iTunes has exceeded our wildest expectations during its first year.” Here’s what happened: iTunes sold 70 million songs online during that year, a solid achievement. But here’s the background: When iTunes was introduced, Steve Jobs promised it would sell 100 million songs during its first year. So here’s the combined message: “Seventy percent of the number we promised actually exceeds our wildest expectations for performance.”

Ø    Will RSS readers clog the web? That’s the headline on an April 30 Wired News story, noting that some RSS aggregators hit blogs and other sites much too often—and that, to the extent people have their own individual aggregators on their own machines, it may represent a considerable increase in traffic. The story does note that Bloglines and other web readers pretty much eliminate this problem, since Bloglines will only check a site once an hour even if 20,000 subscribe to that site—and that most of the problem comes from badly-designed or badly-configured aggregators. (Anna Creech wrote a thoughtful commentary on this story at eclectic librarian on May 4; she concludes: “Perhaps the best thing for us to do is to educate ourselves about which RSS aggregator we use and how it may affect the bandwidth of the feeds we download through it.”)

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 7, Whole Issue 50, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions hereindo 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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