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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 6: April 2005


The Good Stuff

Flanders, Vincent, “The biggest web design mistakes of 2004,” Web pages that suck. www.web­pagesthatsuck.com

Vincent Flanders runs the site noted above with “Daily sucker” and other features. As guides to really bad web sites go, WPTS is less snarky than some—and is itself, as Flanders cheerfully admits, an example of some sucky techniques. This 15-page essay (posted in two parts) results from his examination of a year’s worth of Daily Suckers.

It’s well worth reading to consider what you might be doing dreadfully wrong. His mistakes (each discussed in considerable detail, with links to examples if you’re reading online):

Ø    Believing people care about you and your web site.

Ø    A man from Mars can’t figure out what your web site is about in less than 4 seconds.

Ø    Mystical belief in the power of Web Standards, Usability, and tableless CSS.

Ø    Using design elements that get in the way of your visitors.

Ø    Navigational failure.

Ø    Using Mystery Meat Navigation.

Ø    Thinking your web site is your marketing strategy.

Ø    Site lacks Heroin Content.

Ø    Forgetting the purpose of text.

Ø    Too much material on one page.

Ø    Confusing web design with a magic trick.

Ø    Misusing Flash.

Ø    Misunderstanding graphics.

Ø    AFFront page.

A few more words about some of those. He’s not saying anything’s wrong with standards and usability—only that following them does not guarantee that your site will be any good. Mystery Meat Navigation, one of Flanders’ pet peeves (unless it’s used on music, art, movie or fashion sites and the like), is when you need to mouse over unlabeled buttons or other graphics to actually find pages in the site, as JavaScripted text shows up. Heroin content is content that your audience really wants badly. “Forgetting the purpose of text” deals with a peeve that’s one of my pets, sites where designers have made content secondary to appearance, at the expense of easy reading (or printing!). And an AFFront page is a home page that affronts you—and “odds are it was created by Microsoft’s (Af)FrontPage.” Flanders notes that Microsoft doesn’t use FrontPage for its own site—not even on the pages describing FrontPage. That’s only a bit of what’s in this two-part essay..

Nellis, Michael, “What constitutes ‘information’?” The lair of fang-face dreamweaver, August 10, 2004. www.angelfire.com/scifi/dream­weaver/bannedbks/

Michael Nellis comments actively at LISNews (under his “fang-face” persona) and uses an exchange on that site as the basis for this 19-page commentary. “Just what is information and how can you tell if it is valid or not?” Another LISNews pseudonymous correspondent (Tomeboy) wrote that Alternet.org “was not a vlid source for information because it was not listed at [LexisNexis],” to which Nellis replied that some Alternet articles were reprints from mainstream newspapers “and that [Tomeboy’s] problem with Alternet.org was simply that most of the articles there did not support his prejudices.”

But the point of the discussion is the opening line. Nellis talks about “information” as “an accurate reflection of reality”—then goes on to look at belief systems, facts, disinformation, misinformation, and opinion. People get into trouble when they regard their opinions as facts and when they add disinformation to the mix.

There’s a lot more here. Nellis offers some useful commentary and quotations on how we test ideas for ourselves. It’s mixed in with some strongly stated political opinions, and this is not a tightly edited or spell-checked essay, but you might find it worth reading. (If you’re a big George Bush supporter, you probably won’t make it through the first six pages.)

Richards, Linda L., “Just because you can…”, January Magazine January 2005. www.january­magazine.com/nonfiction/selfpub.html

This review essay covers four books on self-publishing—or, rather, two on self-publishing and two on publicizing books. More than that, Richards—editor of January Magazine (which reviews a lot of books)—discusses the whole issue suggested by the essay’s title. Should you self-publish? Self-publishing isn’t the same as using a vanity press. With self-publishing, you know you’re the only one who’s going to publicize your book or get it into bookstores (if that’s even possible), you’re the one who’s going to try to get the book reviewed—and you’re the one who will invest all the front money and realize whatever profits ensue.

As Richards points out, self-publishing used to be a “big hairy deal”: hiring a contract editor, getting a design house to design and typeset the book, contracting with a printer for the press run, which in the days of offset lithography probably meant opting for “at least a few thousand books” because the first-copy cost of typesetting, platemaking, and setup was so high. Then, with a garage full of books: “What, you’d have asked, do I do now?”

Things have changed. You can do the whole process in your home office, which would “take some pretty specialized gear” but might require less investment than contract editing, much less the whole typesetting/lithography process. More probably, these days, you’ll prepare the book’s content, typography, and cover design on your home computer, then “simply [send] your prepared files to a print on demand publisher who will print as many or as few of your books as you want for relatively little cash.” Or even have them handle online sales for a bigger cut of the revenue—leaving you with no books in hand other than the ones you want for yourself and your friends.

January Magazine reviews some self-published books and Richards loves to see the good ones, but she notes that most of them are “not so good,” with some “downright bad.” Not just bad concepts and storytelling, but “books so poorly conceived and executed you have a hard time getting to the meat of the topic at hand.” She believes that part of the problem is that it’s so easy to make a book—but notes that there’s no reason to produce a bad book. Then she goes on to review the books at hand. One of them, oddly, doesn’t follow the advice within the book (and it’s bad advice anyway: You really shouldn’t deface review copies). Still, the book—Creative Self-Publishing for the World Marketplace (Marshall Chamberlain, Grace Publishing, 2004) “includes small amounts of advice across a truly wide and potentially bewildering array of topics” and is “a reference that every self-publisher should have on their desk.”

If you’re interested in self-publishing or PoD publishing (essentially the same thing, but traditional publishers also use PoD in some cases), read this essay—and you should probably be reading January Magazine as well.

Silverthorne, Sean, “The hidden cost of buying information,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, November 8, 2004. hbswk.hbs.edu

We all need good information to make decisions—that is why consulting is an industry that never goes out of style. But paying for information can carry a hidden cost: We may give it more weight in our decision making than it deserves.

That’s the lead paragraph in an interview with Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School post-doc who recently published a working paper on “overweighing” information because it’s expensive. She did an experiment where subjects were asked to answer different sets of questions about American history. Subjects had the opportunity to receive free advice or expensive advice—and they were told explicitly that the quality of information would be the same in all cases. (All advice came from the same source.) She found people tended to pay significantly more attention to expensive advice than to free advice, even if they had reason to believe it was equivalent.

I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not. The full interview offers more background and is worth reading (it’s only six pages). Among other things, this phenomenon would explain why businesses hire consultants to tell them what they already know from internal analysis: Paying for the information makes it more valuable. Gino talked to a dietician who noticed that patients were more inclined to follow a diet obtained at high cost than a diet (even the same diet) available for free.

Maybe it’s partly because we’re “over-informed”—or at least faced with too much possible information. Maybe it’s because “you get what you pay for” is so ingrained in our culture. Payment doesn’t have to be money, of course: An investment of time or effort also makes information seem to be more valuable.

I’ve wondered whether this is a problem for open access publishing—that free journals will tend to be regarded as less worthy than overpriced journals. I’m almost certain it’s a problem for the valuable free gray literature of the web, such as this here publication.

Slattery, Oliver, Richang Lu, Jian Zheng, Fred Byers and Xiao Tang, “Stability comparison of recordable optical discs—a study of error rates in harsh conditions,” Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology 109:5 (September-October 2004): 517-524. www.nist.gov/jres

The title’s almost longer than this brief mention. If you’re interested in medium-term survival of CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, read this article. You won’t get brand recommendations, but it’s one of the toughest testing programs I’ve heard of, exposing recorded discs to accelerated aging tests and studying the error rate over time. Results show that phthalocyanine dye (which some Verbatim DataLifePlus CD-Rs use) performed better than other dye types, that this dye combined with gold-silver alloy as a reflective layer consistently offered the best stability and could yield semi-archival data (several tens of years, not centuries)—but that it’s difficult to identify stable media and that direct exposure to sunlight on the rainbow side may be the fastest way to render a CD-R or DVD-R useless.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 6, Whole Issue 62, 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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