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

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 9: July 2004

The Good Stuff

Manes, Stephen, “The ultimate personal technology: Paper,” PC World 22:5 (May 2004): 200.

This is a cute column about the advantages of paper, even (or particularly) for full-time technology freaks. He discusses archival issues, the virtues of paper datebooks in lieu of PDAs, and how much better he thinks the print version of PC World looks and works than the Web-based equivalent. (I’m astonished at a hatchet-job review Manes wrote on Lawrence Lessig’s new book, but that’s a different matter. Read this column instead.)

Miller, Ron, “Can RSS relieve information overload?” EContent 27:3 (March 2004): 20-4.

In some ways, this is an unusual introduction to RSS, since it focuses on “enterprise employees,” the corporate market. Along with a brief introduction, Miller offers a few examples of corporate RSS use, along with a sidebar on the Librarian’s Index to the Internet and LII’s use of RSS.

As usual, some RSS folk slightly overstate the case against other delivery media, with Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome declaring, “Email is dead.” The article also misses the possibility that the frequent harvesting done by RSS tools may be a problem for weblogs and other sites, but that’s hardly surprising: That issue’s just beginning to gain visibility. All in all, a good treatment that provides a corporate balance to the usual personal view of RSS.

Miller, Ron, “Get the picture,” EContent 27:4 (April 2004): 30-5.

Here’s an article about graphical approaches to Web search results. Yawn. Not so fast: Miller takes a balanced view, offering some interesting examples of possibilities while recognizing the difficulties of graphical result interfaces, even for people who are graphically inclined. “Visual searching” certainly has a place. The questions are what that place really is and whether visual searching should replace textual results.

Greg Notess “doesn’t see visual search tools making a significant impact on generalized search” and sees some movement away from graphics and toward pure text. Danny Sullivan tends to agree: “Just because it looks cool doesn’t mean it’s useful.” Given the overenthusiastic pronouncements of visual-search suppliers, this may seem awfully negative, but I’m not sure that’s true. You could suggest that Notess and Sullivan are, like me, text-oriented—or you could consider that visual search may be most useful in specialized areas. It sounds as though some software suppliers are recognizing that possibility. Tim Bray Antarctica Systems (apparently they’ve dropped the strange punctuation) admits that “generalized Web search is a very tough row to hoe”—but enterprise searching and other specialized areas may be reasonable targets. Worth reading.

Stone, M. David, “Personal printers,” PC Magazine 23:9 (May 23, 2004): 114-22.

This “essential buying guide” offers good advice on buying a printer—and deciding what kind of printer to buy. You know the usual rules: If you print a lot of text and long-term costs matter, buy a laser printer; if you need the best possible photo quality, buy a “photo printer.” The discussion of multifunction printers is useful, particularly in its suggestion that you not pay too much attention to claims for scanner resolution and color depth or (as with all inkjets) to speed claims. In practice, the claims may be misleading but it doesn’t much matter: Most user needs are satisfied with 300dpi to 600dpi scanning and 24-bit resolution, and almost all of today’s units exceed both those minima.

Tenner, Edward, “Rebound,” Boston Globe, April 25, 2004.

Here’s the subhead: “A decade ago, seers predicted that technology would bury the printed word. So why are there more books than ever?” Tenner notes that many “would-be replacements of books” have vanished—while print persists, with a 36% increase in book sales since 1997. He notes early predictions of the death of print (1895) and Nicholas Negroponte’s confident 1996 projection that epaper would be ready “during the next couple of years.” So what’s happened to the book? According to Gabriel Zaid, the number of book titles published each year has quadrupled in the fifty years since TV was introduced—from an astonishing quarter-million titles to an even more astonishing million titles. Zaid sees the real problem as a flood of books: “If a person reads a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000 others, published the same day.”

Tenner offers three major paradoxes that help to explain the robust state of print book publishing:

Ř    Books have multiplied partly because “they have become less and less important as information storage technologies.” We depend on them less (most data never winds up in book form), which leads to broader variety for the purposes books do serve well.

Ř    Electronic media “often were less efficient than they appeared.” CD-ROM is offered as a prime example.

Ř    “Books survive because technology has made it much easier to write and publish them.” Desktop composition (called “desktop publishing”) and print-on-demand publishing makes it easy for a tiny publisher to compete; that helps to explain the 70,000 publishers in the U.S., up from 21,000 in 1986. How far could this grow? Tenner cites a survey showing that 81% of Americans would like to write a book. (The attack of the PoD People continues!)

Tenner does see “less zest for reading among today’s college students”—but also notes that even in the so-called “golden age of print culture” (which he puts at the 1880s to 1930s), the literati were appalled by the trashy preferences of the masses—and it’s certainly true that more people read more books now than at any time in the past.

A good piece that ends nicely: “Coping with the problems of the new book market will take creative thinking from publishers, librarians, authors, and readers. But it’s clear by now that the book needs not last rites but fresh air and exercise.”

I do have to tweak Tenner a bit for one sentence, though—after noting that Poetry Magazine, with 11,000 subscribers, receives 90,000 submissions a year. “And how many aspiring novelists buy and read serious fiction?” My immediate response: Who defines “serious”?

Wolf, Gary, “The return of push!,” Wired 12.05 (May 2004): 31-4.

It is with pleasure that I’ll soon return to not reading Wired itself on a monthly basis—while the “just try and read this!” layouts are long gone, the attitude continues to be annoying. Since I haven’t been a steady reader, maybe I’m wrong, but my guess is that the pundits at Wired almost never actually admit to being wrong. (Did they ever back down from the “long boom” and “Dow 30K” predictions?) In this story, Gary Wolf almost backs down. He coauthored a cover story about PointCast and other push technology, arguing that Web browsers were about to become obsolete.

I experienced the PointCast wonderfulness for just as long as I needed to judge the monstrosity for a competition and remove the device and its software from my PC. That was way too long. Wolf does note that the story wasn’t quite on the money:

Browsers did not disappear. Instead, they became the world’s standard interface for electronic information. PointCast, after spurning a buyout offer of more than $350 million from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, went on to spectacular failure. Users ignored it, system administrators banned it, and the market punished it. Before long, push was a byword for hype.

But wait! Push is back, this time as RSS. I’ll agree that there’s a “clear parallel between the excitement of the PointCast days and the enthusiasm for RSS today,” and wonder why Wolf doesn’t recognize hyperbole this time around. Instead, the subtitle of the story is “Kiss your browser good-bye, again,” and seems to be claiming that RSS is push.

But it isn’t—and, with Bloglines and other browser-based aggregators being recognized as effective ways to handle RSS and avoid bogging down the internet with millions of RSS polling visits, RSS most surely doesn’t threaten the browser. (Yes, I use Bloglines. No, I have no intention of becoming an “RSS bigot” and find the whole “do it my way or I’ll ignore you” concept sad and self-defeating. I guess the privileged Boomer generation has passed on their aura of entitlement to their children, with a vengeance.)

So does this item belong in The Good Stuff? Not really, but I’ve retired Cheap Shots. And, I must say, while Wolf now claims that the earlier story was “weirdly prescient,” he also admits that it was “terribly incorrect.” He’s half right.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 9, Whole Issue 52, 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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