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


Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 1: January 2006


Trends & Quick Takes

Walking for Watts

That’s the headline on a “Pipeline” writeup in the November 8, 2005 PC Magazine—and it’s a great idea if they can make it work. The University of Pennsylvania has created a power-generating backpack—converting mechanical energy created by walking into 7.4 watts of power. That may require a 40- to 80-pound pack, and it’s worth noting that the research was pushed by the Office of Naval Research looking to “assist soldiers in powering portable high-tech equipment during the war in Afghanistan.” Note that cell phones and night-vision goggles only require a watt or less.

Cutting Off Analog TV

The report’s half a year old and Congress has since taken action, but it’s still worth a quick look: “The digital TV transition: A brief overview,” a CRS report for Congress (Congressional Research Service, Order Code RS22217, August 12, 2005). It’s about the legal transition to digital TV: The point at which TV stations lose the double helping of spectrum they’ve enjoyed since the U.S. embarked on digital TV, so that spectrum can be auctioned off for other purposes.

TV broadcasters would be delighted to keep the double helping, of course. “We” give them the airwaves free, and twice as much means making more money. Congress requires that TV stations use the new spectrum allotment for digital TV—but that doesn’t necessarily mean HDTV. It could mean several channels of standard-resolution DTV or one TV channel and a bunch of other revenue-makers.

When the initial work took place, December 31, 2006 was the deadline for the transition—but with a King Kong-sized loophole: 85% of households must be able to receive digital signals before broadcasters are required to turn over their analog channels. That’s just not going to happen by that deadline; not even close. People haven’t rushed out to buy HDTV—and many of the HDTVs didn’t include ATSC (digital) tuners anyway. (Those are the “HDTV-ready” sets.) That’s changing, thanks to a government mandate. Still, while millions of people have purchased sets with digital tuners, most people haven’t.

If you get cable or satellite, the government can pretend it’s not an issue—and for satellite it isn’t. You’ll just need a new set-top box, if your current one doesn’t already have digital support. If you use a cable box, same thing applies—but I’d guess millions, maybe tens of millions of cable users don’t use set-top boxes, relying on cable-ready TV tuners.

How big is the problem? The National Association of Broadcasters says there are 280.5 million analog TVs in the US, 73 million of them relying on over-the-air broadcasting. That doesn’t mean 73 million households, of course: Many of those are second sets.

The GAO estimates that 19% of U.S. households don’t use cable or satellite. The FCC estimates 15% of “TV households” (roughly the same thing). The Consumer Electronics Association says 13% of TV households. In other words, “lots”—Consumers Union’s estimate of 16 million households that would lose TV reception without analog broadcasting is probably about right. The same paragraph quotes the study (a joint project of CU and the Consumer Federation of America) saying that, assuming an estimated $50 price for a set-top converter, the “direct government-imposed costs on consumers to preserve the usefulness of [analog TV sets] would be $3.5 billion or more.” Running the figures, that can’t be for 16 million households—but that’s just right for 70 million TV sets.

Most charming quote in the six-page report comes from the National Association of Broadcasters: “NAB’s priority continues to be the prevention of cable companies from blocking consumer access to local TV programming.” What NAB means is that they continue to give priority to forcing cable to carry all local over-the-air programming, digital or otherwise. I’ve never heard of a cable company “blocking” someone who wants to use an antenna.

The Gartner Hype Cycle

As technology research firms go, Gartner’s one of the more sensible ones. I like their “Hype Cycle” series, even if I only see it indirectly. The Hype Cycle Model follows five stages:

Ø    Technology Trigger, where a demo, launch, or the like generates press and interest.

Ø    Peak of Inflated Expectations, a “phase of over enthusiasm and unrealistic projections” where “the only companies making money are conference organizers and magazine publishers.” (Anyone else old enough to remember Microsoft’s CD-ROM conferences before there were enough CD-ROMs to make an industry? Microsoft made money—from the conferences.)

Ø    Trough of Disillusionment: Since it doesn’t live up to absurd promises, people shun it.

Ø    Slope of Enlightenment: For developments that have a future, “focused experimentation and solid hard work” by diverse organizations “lead to a true understanding of the technology’s applicability, risks and benefits.”

Ø    Plateau of Productivity: When real-world benefits are accepted and organizations adopt a technology.

Of course, 80% of hyped thingies never make it past the Trough of Disillusionment because they don’t have enough benefits to outweigh the costs—but that magic 20% keeps us moving forward.

The press release on the 2005 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle doesn’t label the 13 specifics as to where they are on the cycle, but seems to be saying that these are ones to be watched. They fall into the areas of collaboration, next generation architecture, and the “real world web.”

There are interesting notes of caution within the bullets on the 13 items. Gartner seems to believe that podcasting “will lead to a massive shift in radio, and ultimately TV content delivery” (really?) and that PwP VoIP will be important—but notes that desktop search hasn’t caught on with consumers all that widely, corporate blogging is more hype than reality at this point, and RSS is only starting to be tapped in corporations. “Gartner predicts that RSS will be most useful for content that is ‘nice to know’ rather than ‘need to know’”—an interesting distinction. Gartner’s strong on wikis.

Moving to next-gen architecture, Gartner thinks SOA (service-oriented architecture) is at the Trough stage and expects it “to mature as a technology within ten years.” Web services-enabled business models are “potentially transformative” but “have to wait for more-mature standards and clearer examples.” I’ll skip over Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) and Business Process Platforms as too arcane for my feeble brain.

“Real-world web” examples include location-aware applications (fleet management, worker tracking, etc.), passive RFID (“somewhat over hyped in recent years” but with growing uses), and mesh sensor networks.

Jackie Fenn of Gartner looked back at a decade of Hype Cycles, considering the technologies discussed in 1995. It’s an interesting perspective, worth quoting in its entirety (all this is excerpted and paraphrased from a Gartner press release, but it’s a good one):

“Wireless communications have exploded into hundreds of underlying technologies, standards, and applications, and the information superhighway has manifested itself through the Internet and World Wide Web to drive ubiquitous information access, new forms of community and whole industries built around online commerce. However, some technologies didn’t fare so well; videoconferencing, handwriting recognition and speech recognition are still featured ten years later on the 2005 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle as they struggle toward mainstream adoption.”

The Final Triumph of Convenience over Quality?

If you ask Peter Adderton of Amp’d, as reported by Adam L. Penenberg in Wired News (August 25, 2005), “the future will be composed of mobile entertainment at 60mph,” given that the mutant KTD really and truly want to do everything on their cell phones. Don’t they? Amp’d calls itself “the first mobile service to target young adults.” Addison says “everything you can do at home—watching TV, viewing movies, listening to the radio or your iPod, downloading music, accessing MapQuest or global positioning systems—you’ll be able to do on a bus, in your car or walking down the street.” On a cell phone. Somehow, this also involves WiFi and satellite radio to “create an unbelievable social device.”

I’ll skip over the thought of idiot drivers being even more distracted watching TV or movies on their cell phones while rolling down the road at 60mph (probably in a 35mph zone, the way phone-using drivers seem to pay attention). I’m astonished by the idea that people believe it makes sense to watch TV (other than maybe news) and movies on a cell phone. I assume these are the same people who think 96k MP3 has all the sound quality anyone could want.

Adderton thinks we’ll all use “wireless entertainment devices” to waken us up (alarm clocks are so 19th century). The device will be voice-activated so you can say “play some Nelly” after you’ve offered appropriate comments about the alarm. That same device will turn on your TV (won’t it be your TV?) and “surf the internet on your computer (won’t it be your computer?). There’s lots more in this convergence-happy story.

Bizarrely, Penenberg says that “anyone who has set up a wireless network at home” won’t find this vision far-fetched. Really? I set up a wireless network, I guess: After all, my broadband router supports 802.11g and my wife connects from her notebook wirelessly. I sure find this vision far-fetched…

We’ll be linking all WiFi networks so that the cell phone can work everywhere. Security, presumably, won’t be a problem. Of course, you’ll have to subscribe to get any of that content—and if you note that ringtones cost two or three times as much as music downloads (which is also a little bizarre), you can guess that the mobile subscription rates might not be dirt-cheap.

Maybe that old network guru Barnum is right, and these new services will find 1,440 willing new customers coming along every hour—people who don’t care about quality, security or price as long as they can get it all on that magic handset.

Personalization or Privacy

Alane at It’s all good has argued that libraries should offer more personalization and responds “Bull-pucky” to the argument that protecting privacy is more important. She suggests research into “what amount of privacy our communities expect from library OPACs”—to which I’d respond that this may be the wrong question, since librarians should understand the reasons for that privacy better than the patrons do. “I’ve said many times that the data show people will give up privacy for personalization features”—which, I would say, does not justify doing so.

In any case, she reports in an August 16 posting, the 2005 National Personalization Survey says she’s wrong—which I find refreshing (not that Alane’s wrong, but that consumers are increasingly unwilling to provide personalization information because they fear loss of privacy).

Ah, but, Alane continues, the same survey finds that about a third of consumers would buy more music or videos if they find more that they like, so businesses (and libraries?) need to find ways to personalize “while visibly ensuring the safety and security of consumers’ information.” She does note that the company doing the survey is in the personalization business.

Most companies that personalize don’t do that great a job of reassuring me that my preferences are private. In principle, I have nothing against personalization as long as confidentiality and privacy can be assured—although there may be other issues with extreme personalization. So I’m with Alane on this being “the sort of challenge librarians should accept.”

The Downside of Collaborative Filtering

That’s the title of a September 27, 2005 post at hangingtogether.org by Merrilee Proffit (a colleague at RLG). She notes an article in the San Jose Mercury News (originally from the LA Times) on such downsides and considers some of them.

“The first downside is dumbness.” So, for example, if you use Amazon mostly to buy things for other people, chances are the recommendations look pretty dumb. Another kind of dumbness: You’re going somewhere and buy travel guidebooks. You come home—and get lots more guidebook recommendations for the same place. Merrilee thinks the first kind of dumbness doesn’t apply much to scholarly research (most people don’t do research for other people that often), but the second would (once a student’s done with a paper, they don’t need more recommendations on that topic).

The other side is the one that bothers me about personalization as well as collaborative filtering: Narrowness, which when taken to extremes or used in areas such as “MyNewspaper,” becomes a sort of solipsism. The newspaper article talks about “society [balkanizing] into groups with obscure interests”—which is OK up to a point, but leaves out the other side, serendipity, the rest of the world, and all that.

“How do we interject chance and opportunity into recommending systems?” That’s a good question, and it’s a question that applies to some if not most personalization systems as well.

Speaking of Filtering...

Remember back when the Rhode Island ACLU reported that libraries were overfiltering and failing to unblock sites on request? Some of us hoped this would result in an as-applied challenge to CIPA, but ACLU chose not to mount such a challenge (which might not have been feasible: If at least one library was handling it properly, the suit would be against the libraries and their censorware options, not against CIPA itself).

There’s been some progress. The Cooperating Libraries Automated Network (which includes most Rhode Island public libraries) made its filtering/censorware policy less restrictive and sent public libraries instructions on how to turn off the filters. Unfortunately, according to the ACLU, four libraries chose to add blocks beyond CLAN’s minimum option, which would appear to be a direct and deliberate censorship case. Some good news, some bad news.

What Feeds Matter

Energy. No, sorry, it’s not a question—or at least it’s not that question. Jim Lanzone of Ask Jeeves did an October 7 update on “blogs that matter” based on the number of subscriptions in Bloglines (owned by Ask Jeeves). As noted by Gary Price at SearchEngineWatch, here are the three-month-old numbers. Since then, the numbers have changed, but probably not all that dramatically. Consider these numbers in light of estimates of the overall number of blogs at anywhere from 20 to 100 million:

Ø    1.3 million feeds (which represent fewer than 1.3 million blogs, since some blogs have multiple feeds and there are RSS feeds other than blogs) have at least one Bloglines subscriber. Those are the “feeds that matter.”

Ø    36,000 feeds “really matter”—they have at least 20 subscribers.

Ø    14,363 feeds “really, really matter” with 50 or more subscribers.

Ø    437 are “totally sweet” (Lanzone is joking about all the terms) with 1,000 or more subcribers.

Ø    60 have at least 5,000 subscribers—the “A list” by most reckonings.

Ø    The most subscribers: more than 50,000—and that’s Slashdot, which I don’t think of as a blog.

I’d guess a current count would find a hundred or more library-related blogs that “really, really matter.”

Tracking Your Color Printouts

Feeling a little paranoid? If you own a color laser printer or use one at work, maybe you have reason. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as reported by Ed Felten at Freedom to tinker on October 18, some color printers put hidden marks on the pages they print, making it possible to track a printout to a particular printer.

Xerox DocuCode printers, for example, print an array of very small yellow dots “all over the page.” Felten says you can see the dots using blue light and a 10x magnifier. It’s not just paranoia: The U.S. Secret Service admitted that it struck a deal with “selected color laser printer manufacturers” to print tracking information, ostensibly to identify counterfeiters. Xerox admitted providing tracking dots, “but indicated that only the Secret Service had the ability to read the code.”

That simply wasn’t true, at least for Xerox DocuColor: The code looks to be pretty straightforward. As Felten notes, once you know it, you could probably forge the marks—that is, add marks providing false information using a printer that doesn’t do its own marking. Felten wonders why the codes don’t at least use minimal cryptography.

At www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/list.php you’ll find a list of printers that “do or do not print yellow tracking dots,” although “do not” just means that EFF couldn’t find any yellow dots (there may be other “forensic marking”). Xerox admits to the marks on Xerox (but not Xerox/Tektronix) and Xerox DocuColor and WorkCenter color lasers. Toshiba also admits to the marks. Experimentation shows tracking dots on printers from Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, Konica/Minolta, Kyocera, Lanier, Ricoh, and some models of HP and Lexmark.

You probably already know that many image-manipulation programs (and some copiers, I believe) won’t handle images of currency (U.S. dollars and some other key currencies); that’s also by agreement with government agencies to deter counterfeiting.

What’s the Matter with KTD?

Jack Shafer comments on a November 7, 2005 USA Today story about “Generation Y” in the November 8, 2005, under the heading “Stupidity on parade.” The story says GenYers are “young, smart, brash.” Shafer notes, “of course they’re young,” since they were born after 1977! “But to assert that all Gen Yers are ‘smart’ and ‘brash’ defies reason. If they’re all smart and brash, they’re the first generation in human history to defy the bell curve and realize such uniformity.”

He goes on to quote a few of the generalizations for these mutants:

This generation…is different from any that have come before… This age group is moving into the labor force during a time of major demographic change… They have financial smarts… Work-life balance isn’t just a buzz word… Generation Yers don’t expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for too long… They believe in their own self worth and value enough that they’re not shy about trying to change they companies they work for… And then there’s Gen Y’s total comfort with technology… Nearly half of employers say that younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of their older co-workers…

Heard any of this before? Applied to GenXers ten years ago, perhaps? Applied to Baby Boomers by the previous generation? (Well, I don’t know about “financial smarts,” but are GenYers the same people paying $2.95 for ringtones?)

I’m not sure I buy one of Shafer’s comments: “What rising generation didn’t hate the previous generation?” That’s as slick and phony a generalization as any of those in the USA Today article. Otherwise he’s right: The article could have been written about most any generation—and most of those generalizations are wrong as generalizations.

Tell me there are no 22-year-olds who are in serious financial trouble or who have problems using technology or who are more interested in making their own way than changing their companies or who work way too hard to maintain life balance. For that matter, tell me no 22-year-olds value the opinions of their elders. I don’t buy it, any more than I buy the similar generalizations made about—and sometimes by some members of—GenX.

Some Technologies will Annoy

That’s the title on a November 8, 2005 Wired News piece by Joanna Glasner, based on interviews with various “professional futurists.” This time around, the futurists are noting “things that sound better suited for a Jetsons set than a real-life home or workspace” and “technologies that sound neat, but probably won’t inspire us to open our wallets.” See if you agree:

Ø    Smart refrigerators. “[D]on’t expect even hard-core gadget lovers to be lining up to buy them.” “Few people see much need for a refrigerator that does things like monitor groceries and self-create shopping lists,” and most refrigerators last a lot longer than most operating systems. Ian Pearson has a better solution for “info addicts”: Attach a pad to the refrigerator door. (That’s what we’ve done: Even cheap Highland self-adhesive pads stick just fine.)

Ø    The networked home. This seems to be a constant dream or projection—every switch and device with its own internet address! “It all sounds good until you envision downloading the latest security patch and having to worry about whether a virus will simultaneously shut down your PC, stereo and toaster.” Pearson, again, imagines a parent trying to get three kids ready for school and finding that the home network that controls everything needs an upgrade: “You’re going to go straight to your garage and get a sledgehammer.”

Ø    Mobile video phones. They’re here—but do most people really want them? Why?

Ø    Light revolution. Yes, OLEDs have significant uses—but nobody knows how long it will take before they’re ready to replace home or car lighting or big-screen TVs. The efficiency would be wonderful, but it’s not going to happen this year or next.

Ø    RFID. Yes, it’s here already—but it won’t reach ubiquity for quite a while, maybe a decade or more.

Ø    Security. What are you willing to spend or do to feel secure?

I’m so glad to see “futurists” saying that maybe smart refrigerators and wholly networked homes aren’t inevitable successes or necessarily desirable.

Quicker Takes

As his editorial in the special PC Magazine “20 years of Windows” issue (24:19/20), Michael J. Miller offered a list of “what Microsoft has done right…and wrong.” It’s an interesting list, partly because it’s easy to forget how much it’s done right.

Right: Creating a standardized platform; supporting developers; encouraging software innovation; and “being stubborn” (sticking with difficult projects until they’re done). Wrong: Not paying enough attention to security; not making Windows stable enough (although XP is much better); making Windows too complex (DLLs and the Registry sound great in theory, but in practice…); stifling innovation (yes, Microsoft both supports and stifles innovation); and taking its time to release new features.

Ø    This is probably so late as to be useless, but in case you didn’t know, ACRL has started a group blog, ACRLog (acrlblog.org—yes, the domain and blog name aren’t spelled the same). It started in mid-October 2005. Steven J. Bell appears to be the driving force and is one of several bloggers, along with Barbara Fister, Kevin S. Clarke, Marc Meola, and Scott Walter. It’s off to a promising start.

Ø    University libraries don’t care about books any more—or do they? According to the University of Chicago Chronicle 25:4 (November 3, 2005), a poll of 5,700 students’ library usage habits shows that use of electronic resources is not “crowding out use of libraries for research using conventional stacks, reference materials and other physical resources.” The planned expansion of the Joseph Regenstein Library will add on campus space for 3.5 million (additional?) volumes, creating “one of the most voluminous collections of library resources under one roof in the United States.” Sure, most use of journals is online—but usage of other physical materials is up, and “the survey tells us very clearly that heavy digital media users are heavy physical media users and vice versa.”

Ø    When I groused about epaper (specifically a thin plastic sheet with display capabilities) being suggested as a way to make cereal boxes more enticing, I was hoping it was a joke. No such luck. A December 15, 2005 Wired News story says it all: “E-paper’s killer app: Packaging.” Siemens says “in less than two years” we’ll have cereal boxes with flashing pictures thanks to their photochromic material; ultra-thin batteries will supply the power for the ever-changing wrapping. Maybe even color at 80dpi (nowhere near book resolution, but enough to make for thoroughly annoying consumer goods). I’m delighted to see that some other knowledgeable people don’t buy Siemens’ assurance that this stuff can be manufactured consistently and cheaply—and at least one observer suggests that the whole idea of flashing cereal boxes is nuts. Siemens claims a 1x2" display would cost $0.30 (so at least only a little of the box would be flashing), a cost that would certainly be passed along in the cereal. Nobody commented on what a plastic/battery/chemical/paper laminate does to recycling. The city I live in already beats California’s 50%-waste-diversion standard and this sort of hyperconsumerist crap won’t help matters. “What ebooks? We’re selling cereal!”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 1, Whole Issue 71, 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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