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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 3: February 2005


Trends & Quick Takes

WiFi or Not WiFi?

Walt Crawford

Here are a couple of interesting and possibly related items (courtesy of Marydee Ojala at Online, who found the conjunction intriguing). A December 6, 2004 PR announcement from Airespace, Inc. announced that the Airespace Wireless Enterprise Platform has been deployed throughout the 79 libraries of Chicago Public Library “to deliver free Wireless LAN services to Chicago residents, library personnel, and mobile City workers.”

Four days earlier, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) issued a press release criticizing a legislative deal to bring city-owned WiFi to Philadelphia residents. Why? Because the legislation included a deal giving network operators in the rest of Pennsylvania the power to block deployment of similar municipal WiFi networks. ITAA’s President Harris N. Miller: “This is a clear case of an incumbent network operator using political muscle to limit new wireless broadband technologies. Backroom deals are not the way to resolve these issues—competition is.”

I agree that the juxtaposition is interesting—and have no further comment.

OPAC Manifesto?

Jessamyn’s started something new at librarian.net: The OpacManifesto wiki. (www.librarian.net/opwiki). It’s worth a look. I printed off the “manifesto” itself as of November 11, 2004, but I’m sure it’s grown since then. The manifesto at that point included 11 bullet points under “what library staff wants,” seven “what geek wants,” and 14 “what users want.” (For readers outside the library community: Online public access catalog, or just “online catalog.”)

Some seem obvious: “We want our customizations to the OPAC to not be overwritten by the next OPAC release when we install it.” “We [users] want the online version and the in-the-library version to look and act the same.” Some seem a little tricky: “We want easy icons for distinguishing records. Ones that can be based on 008 or 300 or 6XXv or location in the holding record or…” Some relate directly to problems with too-clever designs: “We want the back button to work when we use the OPAC.”

Patent Holding Companies

A December 16 news.com story by John Borland notes that Acacia Research is buying Global Patent Holdings. So what? So this: Global Patent Holdings is one of those beloved companies whose only products appear to be litigation and licenses—companies that buy patents developed elsewhere, then make the broadest possible claims and threaten to sue any company deemed in violation of the patents.

As you should know, some technology-related patents are wildly overbroad—but for many companies, paying for a license is less expensive and less hassle than going to court and attempting to invalidate the patent. The story begins, “In the streaming media business, a letter from Acacia Research usually means one thing: the threat of a patent lawsuit.” The purchase will make Acacia more of a “patent powerhouse”—the CEO explicitly says the goal is “becoming the leading technology licensing company.”

Not “the company that creates the best technology and licenses it.” Creation—“the progress of science and useful arts” as the Constitution calls it in the copyright-and-patent clause—isn’t what these companies are all about. These companies produce licenses and litigation. (Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold has founded a similar company, Intellectual Ventures, with close to a thousand patents already.)

I’m not wild about patent holding companies. Edward Felten disagrees, in a January 12, 2005 Freedom to tinker posting: “From a policy standpoint I don’t see a problem.” He makes some good points, if we’re dealing with legitimate patents. Patent holding companies can provide a level ground for smaller inventors: True. Inventors should be able to focus on invention, not on extracting royalties: Also true.

As Felten says, “those who support rational patent policy should focus on setting up the right patent rules (whatever they are), and applying those rules to whoever happens to own each patent.” He’s right, of course: My outrage at patent holding companies is based on the kind of patents we hear about and the overbroad claims. If smaller companies and inventors actually do rely on patent holding companies to gain justifiable rewards for their real inventions, there’s no reason to object.

The two comments I saw on the posting when I downloaded it (the day it was posted—there may be more since) both acknowledged this. Grant Gould noted what’s needed to make the patent system “economically efficient” (and just from a policy perspective): “strong prior-art investigations, a more objective obviousness criterion tied to the likelihood of reinvention during the patent term, an independent reinvention defense to infringement claims, increasing renewal fees tied to the price of a license.” “Skopo” says Felten “misses the point”—which is not that the holding companies have no other business but that some of the patents being enforced are overbroad. I don’t know that Felten misses that point, but it’s a good one. I withdraw my general outrage over companies whose only business is to enforce patents they purchase, although their aggressiveness may itself be a problem. The bigger problem is patents that are too broad and, in many IT-related cases, should never have been issued.

Power for a Price

What do you get in a cheap name brand PC these days? Computer Shopper liked the $600 eMachines T3256 enough to rate it an Editors’ Choice. (Yes, eMachines is a brand name; it’s the same company as Gateway—but eMachines doesn’t offer custom configuration.) That price, what you’d pay for a Motorola Razr smart phone, buys a 2.2GHz Athlon XP 3200+ (claimed to perform as fast as a 3.2GHz Pentium4), 512MB DDRAM, a 160GB hard disk, multiformat DVD burner and second CD-ROM drive, 64MB nVidia GeForce4 MX graphics (on the motherboard), Windows XP Home, MS Works, and basic speakers. Oh, and a card reader for your camera and other “media” memory. You still need a display, but that’s a lot of computer for the money—and if you’re a gamer, there’s an AGP slot to plug in a hotter graphics card.

Blogging and Triumphalism

Here’s Pew again, once more extrapolating from 1,800 interviews to give us the precise state of the nation on internet-related issues. (Yes, 1,800 interviews chosen with appropriate tools should be enough for reasonably accurate projections, given a whole set of hard-to-test assumptions.) This time it’s about the blogosphere. I didn’t download or read the whole report, but I did look at the summary and some comments about the study and the summary. I’m assuming here that “adults” means “age 18 and over.”

I’m going to repeat some of the key points in the summary, using precisely the information given, but wording them just a bit differently:

Ø    96% of U.S. adults have not created weblogs.

Ø    86% of them do not read (and, I would extrapolate, have never read) weblogs. 80% do not know what a blog is. 93% have never posted a comment or other material on blogs. During the political campaign, 95% of adults did not read political weblogs—and 97% did not read them regularly.

Ø    97-98% of U.S. adults do not use RSS aggregators or XML readers.

Ø    52% of blog creators are more than 29 years old.

Ø    58% of blog creators are not particularly well off financially, living in households with no more than $50,000 annual gross income

Ø    61% of blog creators do not have college degrees.

As some readers have figured out by now, I’ve just provided the inverse of the claims actually made in the summary—and adjusted for the difference between 120 million adult internet users and around 222 million adults (2000 census).

j Baumgart at j’s scratchpad took issue with the way the figures were originally presented—particularly “blog creators are more likely to be” claims on education, where 39% is “more likely.”

The Register’s Andrew Orlowski also took a swipe at the report, headlining the January 5 story “62pc of netizens unaware of Pajamahadeen militants” (“pahamahadeen” being one snarky word for bloggers, and I suspect particularly those bloggers who assert that blogging is making or has made traditional journalism obsolete). I don’t usually read The Register; I picked up on this one because Orlowski credited Seth Finkelstein (sethf.com/infothought/) with “Finkelstein’s Law,” the ease with which a few people agreeing with each other gets multiplied into a Movement. You could also call it the echo-chamber effect. (I’m oversimplifying and possibly misrepresenting: go to archives/000516.html on Infothought for the proper interpretation.)

I mention this partly because of stuff I saw coming out of reports on the “Webcred” conference, partly because of a silly story by Adam L. Penenberg at Wired News, “Like it or not, blogs have legs.” Well, of course they do. But does a medium ignored by 85% of adults really constitute a “revolution in the dissemination of intellectual capital”? Penenberg dismisses “solipsists…who once thought online news would never equal print.” Well, then, call me a solipsist: While “never” is a strong word, I do not believe online news takes the place of good print newspapers or newsmagazines now. It does something different, which is as it should be.

Penenberg’s on a roll here. He calls the blogosphere “at its best…a pure meritocracy.” “In a sense, blogs function like peer-review journals do in the academic world.” But better! Because blogs aren’t controlled by a publishing cartel which “deleteriously affects the level and quality of discussion.”

With blogs, however, anybody with an internet connection can engage anybody else. Concepts are presented, attacked, sliced, diced, added to and subtracted from, mangled, massaged and molded until what is left is an amalgam of the finest we as an online society have to offer.

Whew. Who woulda thought? Where do you go to reap that refined amalgam?

Penenberg goes on to talk about Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” thesis, which is old news to book publishers but hot stuff when Wired publishes it. There’s more; you can find the original without my snarkiness at www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294, 66336,00.html

Weblogs can be—no, are—important. Weblogs are useful. Their use and readership are growing rapidly. But they haven’t overthrown any other medium—it doesn’t usually work that way. And, for 86% of American adults, weblogs don’t exist. (Interestingly, an offhand assertion by Aaron Schmidt, noted in The Library Stuff, turns out to be almost exactly on the money: 98% of American adults don’t know what RSS is, or at least haven’t used it.)

Quicker Takes

“There are two truisms in our go-go, tech-driven culture. First, every technological change improves our lives. And second, the faster the change, the better.” Nope, not John Dvorak this time. Those are the first sentences of “Never look back,” Ken C. Pohlmann’s “Digital Horizons” column in the January 2005 Sound & Vision. The rest of the column seems to be saying that HD-DVD is really being introduced to make us all re-buy all the DVD movies we purchased (and because it’s even more ludicrous to file-share than DVD), not because it offers four times the picture quality. But really, after “truisms” as absurd as those stated here, all I could think of is another truism: “It’s tough to write satire these days.”

Ø    The San Francisco Chronicle for January 23, 2005 reprinted a charming little piece by Elizabeth Large, originally in the Baltimore Sun: “Even the rat race needs a slow lane.” It’s about multitasking and effectiveness, citing a poll and study in the new Scientific American Mind and relating it to Carl Honore’s In praise of slowness.” The poll found that 90% of Americans multitask—and that 60% of us “said they felt as though they were getting done.” The article “concluded that multitasking doesn’t work very well, unless you’re doing something routine like walking and chewing gum.” Dr. Barry Gordon says we need to slow down in order to do any real thinking—and, thus, Honore’s book. I don’t know about the various “slow movements,” but I’m becoming increasingly skeptical about multitasking as a way to improve overall effectiveness. I suspect that, too often, it’s a way to do several things badly—something I’ve noted before. In my own life, I find that I no longer play music while I’m writing; because I almost always care (at least a little) about the music I listen to, it distracts from the writing. Your multitasking may vary, of course.

Ø    “Dot.life” from the BBC News Magazine online had a brief piece by Paul Rubens on November 29, 2004: “Sound of music.” It leads off with a discouraging question: “When did you last read anything about an MP3 music player that mentioned the quality of the sound it reproduces?” Rubens goes on to say that advertisements and reviews talk about size, storage capacity, types of music files, even colors—“but chances are that sound quality won’t get a look in.” (British, remember, and the article said “colour.”) He suggests that the answer is “quantity turns out to be more important than quality” (but see Library Stuff in this issue, specifically the notes about DPE). He believes most people simply don’t care about quality any more and that “what music lovers want today more than anything else is music—and lots of it.” He applies the same dystopian assertion to video, where low-quality DivX is a popular alternative to DVD. Finally, he suggests that the slow comeback of “vinyl and valves” (tube equipment) may mean a renaissance of serious music listening. Well…I think the “vinyl and valves” stuff deals with something other than high fidelity sound reproduction (but I could be wrong). I know that a lot of people care about quality sound reproduction—and that most people have never heard true high fidelity reproduction, MP3 or otherwise. Fortunately, I had a ready answer to the leading question: The most recent group review of MP3 players in PC Magazine considered reproduction quality as part of the evaluation. Some sources do care.

Ø    While the “evolution stickers” in Cobb County School District were overruled this time around, similar inane attempts will certainly arise again. There’s a great page of alternative stickers—including the original, with exactly that wording—at www.swarth­more.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/textbooksdisclaimers/ The page includes 15 stickers in all; it’s also available as PDF to print out on actual sticker stock (or you can blow up a single sticker to make custom t-shirts—or buy one from CafePress). Remember the original? “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Among the others: “This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be directly seen…” (and the last sentence of the original). (Similarly for heliocentrism, the theory that the Earth orbits around the Sun; plate tectonics; and special relativity.) Better: “This textbook claims that evolution is not fully accepted by scientists because it is just a theory. The author hopes to confuse you into equating ‘scientific theory’ with ‘cockamamie theory.’ To read a short blurb on what a scientific theory is, go to http://wilstar.com/theories.htm” Great stuff.

Ø    A little report in the January 2005 Computer Shopper says that MP3 is still the “overwhelming favorite music format of file traders,” but that it’s slipping. Given the popularity of the iPod, that’s scarcely surprising. What’s unfortunate here is sloppy or ignorant reporting: “The percentage of songs in MP3 format in people’s digital-music collections has slid down to about 72 percent, from about 82 percent a year ago.” Since the piece goes on to say that Windows Media files make up 20% and Apple’s AAC format 4.3%, there’s a major oversight here: What about all that digital music in the form of CDs? Or does being on a physical carrier make it no longer digital?

Ø    Since I’m picking on Computer Shopper, here’s another oddity. Each month, they have a “buying advisor” feature where a reader needs a particular functionality at a particular price and they consider the best alternatives, finally offering a recommendation. This time it was an ex-teacher who aspires to be a writer and wants an “easily totable device” to write in her spare moments; she wants to spend no more than $1,000. The discussion is interesting; cheap notebooks tend to be heavy, while light notebooks tend to be expensive—and some compromise units lack optical drives at that price. So far, so good—but the final recommendation is NEC’s MobilePro 900c, an oddball 1.8lb. “half-VGA” semi-PDA with a “typeable” keyboard (but is it truly touch-typeable?). It uses Windows CE and MS WordPad. And, like any other PDA, its CD-ROM drive is…hmm, I don’t see an optical drive anywhere in the specs. Any more than I would for any other PDA or pseudo-PDA. I suppose consistency is a bit much to ask for.

Masthead

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 3, Whole Issue 59, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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