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

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

The Good Stuff

Walt Crawford

“25 years of technology,” Computer Shopper 25:1 (January 2005): 91-5.

It’s really only two pages (page 91 is an introductory paragraph, 92-93 a Dell ad), but it’s still an interesting brief timeline of the quarter-century since Computer Shopper started. (Which, itself, was five years after the first modern PC, the Altair, was introduced.) Some tidbits: The first 1GB hard disk came out in 1980, from IBM, “as big as a refrigerator.” The first million-selling computer came out in 1981—Commodore’s VIC-20. (That’s also the year IBM introduced the IBM PC.) ARPAnet switched to TCP/IP in 1983, which thus counts as “the start of the Internet.” The Mac came out in 1984—and Michael Dell started selling computers. PS/2—remember PS/2?—came out in 1987; Windows 3.0 (the first usable Windows) in 1990; Linux in 1991. The first White House website emerged in 1993, as did the Pentium and Mosaic. CD-RW didn’t happen until 1996—and DVD went on sale in the U.S. in 1997. And in truly paradigm-shattering news, the Segway Human Transporter appeared in 2001: Cities have never been the same! Or, wait…

Anderson, Chris, “The zen of Jeff Bezos,” Wired 13:1 (downloaded January 7, 2005).

What makes this brief interview noteworthy is where Amazon’s founder stands these days on the inevitable triumph of Amazon over physical bookstores and the like. Maybe it’s not new; maybe digital triumphalists overinterpreted Bezos’ plans. Anyway, here’s Bezos’ estimation of how retail sales will settle out: “I think online ultimately will be 10 to 15 percent of retail. The vast majority of retailing will stay in the physical world…” He doesn’t exempt bookstores, noting that physical bookstores are one of the “third places” people gather. “We humans are a gregarious species; we like to mingle with other humans.”

Bezos notes that Amazon sales are disproportionately weighted toward harder-to-find titles compared to the book industry as a whole and claims that the collaborative recommendation system creates demand for hard-to-find products. He notes that Search Inside the Book has apparently increased sales of those books—even cookbooks and reference titles, where one might think the snippet would be enough.

Curiously (or not), Bezos doesn’t expect print-on-demand to be particularly significant in retail stores—but it’s already a significant part of Amazon. “We already have many [print-on-demand books] in our catalog, but it’s invisible to you, the customer. We use a number of companies that do the actual printing, but we mail them like regular books. They look like regular trade paperbacks.”

Dyszel, Bill, “How to make an award-winning movie,” PC Magazine 23:23 (December 28, 2004): 80-1.

I just had to include this charming story. Dyszel entered the 48 Hour Film Project’s New York competition—a competition that gives teams two days, 48 hours, to prepare a finished short movie. Each film must include a compulsory character, a compulsory prop, and a specific line of dialogue; the genre for each film is decided by lot. Dyszel drew science fiction and always wanted to make a musical, so he made a 150-second sci-fi musical. Oh, and unlike most teams, he did it all himself, using consumer-level equipment and software. It’s a fascinating read. You can even view the flick ( area2slash2), which picked up three awards.

Entlich, Richard, “FAQ: One last spin: Floppy disks head toward retirement,” RLG DigiNews 8:8 (December 15, 2004). (Available at

As always RLG DigiNews offers valuable content that should be in The Library Stuff. This issue includes a piece on Ephemeral Cities, a historical digital atlas project; the role of geographic location in metadata schemas and digital collections; and PREMIS—Preservation Metadata Implementation Strategies.

I’m only commenting on the latest in Richard Entlich’s wonderful “FAQ” series. He begins with a question: “It appears the floppy disk is going the way of the long playing record and the rotary dial phone. Is there any cause for concern?” In three text-heavy pages, he explores that question.

Entlich notes that Macs haven’t had diskette drives for a while now, that most notebooks don’t include diskette drives (he calls them “floppy drives,” although there hasn’t been a true floppy for years now), and that Dell dropped diskette drives on high-end computers two years ago. My new work computer doesn’t have a diskette drive; it turns out that the one on my old work computer didn’t work very well anyway. (Lexar Jump Drive to the rescue!)

IBM introduced the 8" floppy in 1971; Shugart issued the first “minifloppy” (and last true floppy), the 5.25" form, in 1976. Sony created the 3.5" microdiskette in 1981; Apple adopted it for the Mac in 1984, and it became the dominant form over some years. There have been many other sizes and densities; most of them had no market impact. More history concerns physical stability, compatibility over the years, and why diskettes have lasted this long despite being fairly fragile and the slowest storage medium around. Finally, Entlich comes to the bottom line: “Ultimately, it is the floppy’s limited storage capacity that has spelled its doom.” It doesn’t help that recent 3.5" drives have been so cheaply made that diskettes don’t work reliably any more.

The discussion of salvaging data still on diskettes raises issues central to RLG DigiNews—and it’s getting harder. I decided not to even try rescuing the data on three boxes of 8" diskettes; although they represented a year’s worth of work, it was programming for a computer and operating system (Datapoint Databus) that probably no longer exist anyway. If I did want to rescue the files, it wouldn’t be easy. For that matter, MARC for Library Use was written on 5.25" diskettes under CP/M; if I haven’t migrated the files, it would probably be easier to scan and OCR the book than to try to retrieve the files. (I did a truly clever thing: Migrated all my old text files to Zip cartridges. And recycled the computer and Zip drive. Fortunately, I think I also migrated all the text files to CD-R and zipped archives on my hard disk as well. If not…)

Diskette drives are obsolescent now. “Whether it takes two years or five or ten, all floppy disk formats will be obsolete within the foreseeable future”—not obsolescent, but obsolete. Any data on them now “should be considered endangered” for reasons explained in the FAQ.

Entlich draws lessons from the history of diskettes. “All media is subject to obsolescence. Media types that are less mainstream, less standardized, and less widely adopted are hit harder and faster by obsolescence. If one is paying any attention, there is generally ample opportunity to recognize that a medium is headed for obsolescence at a time when migration can be accomplished relatively painlessly and inexpensively.” Entlich doesn’t see a single obvious replacement for diskettes. I think he’s right—neither CD-R/recordable DVD nor USB flash drives have all the desirable characteristics of diskettes, although both offer more useful capacities.

An excellent, readable article, typical of Entlich’s work. Highly recommended.

Guenther, Kim, “Pull up a chair and stay awhile: Strategies to maximize site stickiness,” Online 28:6 (November/December 2004): 55-57.

“Stickiness is the average time a user spends on a site and the frequency of his or her visits to the site.” I’m a little surprised by that definition; I would have thought it only meant time spent. To me, frequency is part of loyalty or worth—but that’s a quibble.

“The idea of stickiness is based on the premise that the longer a user remains on the Web site, the more potential exists to influence that user’s behavior.” Maybe, if it’s the right kind of stickiness—but one reason Google is so popular is that the clean, efficient screen gets you in, out, and off in a hurry.

Guenther gets that. As you read further in this recommended article (recommended for webmasters, at least), you learn to distinguish between good and bad stickiness and see some recommendations for a (good) sticky site. Three of those suggestions (keep it simple, deliver value with every “click,” and don’t waste my time) represent distinguishing factors between good and bad stickiness.

Library sites may tend to be like Google: You really only want people on long enough to do their business—but you want them to like using the site. Guenther’s suggestions are worth considering.

Machrone, Bill, “Hack your gadgets,” PC Magazine 23:18 (October 19, 2004): 74-75.

Maybe “good stuff” is the wrong section, but I had to mention this strange article about tricks to make your digital gadgets do more than was originally intended. That includes hacking a Canon EOS Digital Rebel to provide some firmware features of the more expensive EOS 10D, turning an Xbox into a Linux workstation, refilling inkjet cartridges, and turning Roombas into robots. It also includes getting around DVD limits—defeating region codes, for example.

Some of these may be interesting projects. Some may be exercises in futility (I’d put refilling inkjet cartridges in that category, particularly if you’re using the new durable inks). And some, as Bill doesn’t note, are almost certainly flat-out illegal—violating DMCA by subverting digital protection.

Notess, Greg R., “The changing information cycle,” Online 28:5 (September/October 2004): 40-42.

Notess recognizes that “the information journey on the Internet differs from a similar search in bibliographic or full-text databases” and discusses some of those differences. “The Internet” here is shorthand for the open web, since most bibliographic and full-text databases are also provided via the internet.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that you need to go beyond a single page to be reasonably certain of your information. Even the most authoritative sites can have typographical errors; “it is so easy to post a Web page that much Web content fails to have significant editorial oversight.” He recommends scanning at least the ten results that most search engines display as a default first page.

Notess finds “that I am working on retraining myself to dig more deeply on the Web, to look more broadly at the range of answers.” Anyone who relies on the open web for factual information should consider that process. Recommended.


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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