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

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 10: September 2007

Trends & Quick Takes

Is Web 2.0 Safe?

That’s the way Robert McMillan poses the question in a July 2007 PC World “News & Trends” article—and it’s a question that almost answers itself. Samy Kamkar managed to shut down MySpace by creating a worm “no firewall could block.” The Samy worm only messed with users’ online data (their MySpace profiles), but that’s not a long-term guarantee.

For that matter, is it OK if “only” online data gets compromised? Thought about your Gmail archives, your Flickr account, your blogs and wikis—or, for those of you really into new software, those documents and spreadsheets you create with Google Desktop or Zoho Office?

This article discusses “cross-site scripting attacks” and “cross-site request forgeries.” The first finds a way to cause malware to run within your browser; the second takes advantage of the fact that most people don’t log off sites when they’re through with them—and can give an attacker “unfettered access” to any website left in that condition. (Do you ever leave a banking site or anything like it without explicitly logging off? You shouldn’t.)

For more traditional threats, how many malicious websites are out there? I don’t mean snarky or offcolor or gossipy. I mean sites that distribute viruses and other malware. According to a post at Rough type on May 21, 2007, Google’s current estimate is one in a thousand—and apparently Google’s already uncovered a million web pages that do “drive-by downloads,” infecting your computer when you visit the site.

Uncompressed Video

If you have HDTV, you’re probably aware that some HD video sources look better than others. One reason is compression. Some cable companies compress video a lot, resulting in artifacts, softness and other deficiencies. Supposedly, the least-compressed HD source around is over-the-air broadcast TV.

Do you get uncompressed high-def video from sources such as HD DVD or Blu-ray? Not even close. An article in Home Theater discussed possible ways to transmit uncompressed high-def signals from a source to the TV and mentioned the signal rates required for uncompressed video.

1080p video requires a data rate of 3Gbps. That’s three billion bits per second—or three gigabytes every eight seconds. Or 22.5 gigabytes (GB) per minute. That may or may not include uncompressed 7.1-channel sound; for now, let’s assume that it does.

A single-layer HD DVD disc holds 15GB. It could hold 40 seconds of uncompressed 1080p video—except that you couldn’t possibly stream that much data off the disc at such a rate. In practice, an HD DVD disc needs to hold at least two hours of video, maybe more. That comes out to at least 180:1 compression.

Blu-ray has more capacity, and you can use double-layer discs with 50GB capacity. So you could theoretically have as little as 54:1 compression on a Blu-ray disc.

The actual maximum data rate for HD DVD is 36.55 mbps, indicating that the minimum compression ratio is 82:1. The maximum data rate for Blu-ray is 48mbps, so the minimum compression ratio is a mere 62.5:1. In reality, compression rates are likely to be much higher.

I put this here instead of in the occasional “Tracking High-Def Discs” section because it’s about video in general. Oh, by the way, broadcast HDTV maxes out at 19.39 mbps: It’s substantially compressed as well, even if the broadcaster hasn’t carved out some of that data rate for side channels.

Second Life Notes

Sure, this belongs in Net Media, but that’s been hijacked by Wikistuff and blogging for the most part. Anyway, this isn’t a Perspective, just some notes along the way. First, there’s “Who’s on third in Second Life?” by Lori Bell, Kitty Pope, Tom Peters and Barbara Galik, in the July/August 2007 Online. It’s an interesting article with some real oddities. For one, the authors define “Library 3.0” even before there’s consensus as to Library 2.0—and they define it surprisingly broadly:

We define Library 3.0 as the next phase of the Internet—the new Web… This year, 2007, is the year of Library 3.0.

Defining “the new Web” in library terms is pretty ambitious. So is the claim that 2007 is “the year of” virtual worlds—never mind the question of whether World of Warcraft and Second Life are comparable “virtual worlds” in any useful sense. The writers offer the “more than 5 million residents” claim for Second Life in April 2007 but do have the sense to note “some question about the actual demographics of SL.” Still, saying “More people register than actively participate” is an understatement, given that even Linden Labs people now admit that 90% of registrants do not participate. It’s a little like saying more computer owners are aware of Apple computers than actually own them: True, but somewhat misleading

This sentence really stuck in my craw, especially with the implied universalism:

As academic, nonprofit, and medical organizations, as well as schools, expand their presence in Second Life, libraries must do the same to remain viable. [Emphasis added.]

That’s pretty strong stuff, and note that the word “some” doesn’t appear before “libraries.” “To remain viable”—not just to be trendsetters. That “remain viable” phrase crops up again later. The authors “believe that environments such as Second Life are the next phase of the Internet.” That may be true, although the rapidity with which new users flee from Second Life might give one pause.

Whenever library activities in Second Life are mentioned, we hear the claim of visits by “5,000 avatars a day”—which you’d expect to be a lot higher by now if the supposed growth of Second Life is all it’s cracked up to be. How many of those avatars are non-librarians who use library services? That’s not clear.

There is some good stuff in this article, but the hype bothers me. Not that there’s anything new about hype when Second Life is under discussion. An interview with a Linden Labs person in the June/July The Perfect Vision cites “200,000 individuals who go into Second Life on a daily basis.” It’s hard to know what that means in terms of overall ongoing usage—but it’s almost certainly the case that “individuals” means avatars, not people. Some indications are that there’s an average of 1.5 avatars per active human user.

Before you say, “Wait a minute, that 90% abandonment figure must be a straw man—Linden Labs would never admit that!” let me point you to the July 2007 PC World and Dan Tynan’s “Gadget Freak” column, “Traveling the Web’s Third Dimension.” Here’s a direct quote:

Catherine Smith, Linden Lab director of brand strategy and communications, says roughly 10 percent of people who sign up for an account become active residents, which puts the real population at around half a million.

Tynan seems to like Second Life and think it’s the wave of the future—but he admits it’s usually “deserted” (“My avatar wandered through many ghost towns and vast empty landscapes”), hard to use and demanding.

Doing a little searching, I find that Linden Labs people have generally said there’s a 10% “conversion rate”—but “conversion” only means going back at least once, a month after signing up: It’s a ceiling, not the floor of truly active users. That floor is certainly (almost certainly) more than the 94,000 premium accounts worldwide. Linden’s own count for “active avatars” in June 2007 shows right around 130,000 from the U.S.; that suggests fewer than 100,000 people in the U.S. currently using Second Life. It would be interesting but difficult to deflate the 130,000 count by those who registered within the same month and may never return.

Clay Shirky has been one of the leaders in questioning Second Life numbers, primarily at Many2Many ( In a January 29, 2007 post, he noted, “there are many interesting things going on in Second Life”—but also that “Linden’s Residents figures are methodologically worthless” (a claim for which Shirky offers extensive documentation). He raises two issues: whether Second Life is likely to become “a platform for a significant online population” and what Second Life can “tell us about the future of virtual worlds generally.” As to the first, he’s doubtful: “I predict that Second Life will remain a niche application…of considerable interest to a small percentage of the people who try it.” He notes that SL’s high rate of abandonment is not a problem with all “visually traversable spaces,” offering Doom and Cyworld as counterexamples.

Shirky’s comments on objections to his skepticism are priceless—particularly from a writer given to claims I tend to be skeptical of, particularly when he’s dismissing ontology. He notes the first response: Skepticism on X turned out to be unwarranted, therefore skepticism on Y is wrong. In other words, it’s always wrong to be skeptical about anything—because skepticism was once refuted. The second: Demographics don’t matter—only the interesting things matter. Which is fine, unless you’re being told that this is the wave of the future, not an interesting little niche. Shirky also notes that claims of SL advocates have shifted: When nobody questioned Linden’s “Residents” numbers, the rapid growth of SL population was evidence of its success. When it became clear that the numbers were neither large nor growing all that rapidly, some advocates declared that large usage was irrelevant. Shirky: “A hypothesis which is strengthened by evidence of popularity, but not weakened by evidence of unpopularity, isn’t really a hypothesis, it’s a religious assertion.”

As to the second issue, Shirky does not regard SL as predictive for virtual worlds in general—partly because he doesn’t believe “virtual worlds” is a coherent category. World of Warcraft and Everquest may be as much “virtual worlds” as Second Life—but they may not have much else in common with SL. Shirky notes that virtual game worlds have consistently outperformed nongame worlds and offers reasons that makes sense.

PC Magazine for April 24, 2007 has an eight-page article on the question by Cade Metz: “The emperor’s new web.” It notes that a tour in December 2006 of all the big-name SL business campuses (Starwood’s virtual hotel, virtual stores from Circuit City, Toyota, American Apparel and others) found that they had something in common: “None of them contained even a single customer.” Additionally, Linden Labs admits that some avatars are probably bots—”residents” that don’t have a human being attached to them at all. The article isn’t an attack; it is well worth reading.

More recently, Frank Rose wrote, “How Madison Avenue is wasting millions on a deserted Second Life” in the August 2007 Wired. Considering the source—the most technophilic, shiny-new-toy mass magazine of our time—it’s fairly damning. The article makes you wonder: For example, a marketing hotshot at Coca-Cola went into Second Life, looked around at the various storefronts and the hot new hotel—and generally found nobody else around. “It was deserted, almost creepy.” But he still chose to put money into SL, even though the Coke Virtual Thirst pavilion is generally deserted: “My job is to invest in things that have never been done before. So Second Life was an obvious decision.” Wow. The NBA commissioner saw to it that an elaborate NBA island went up in Second Life, after launching a YouTube NBA channel. Results? The YouTube channel has more than 14,000 subscribers and NBA videos have been viewed 23 million times. Second Life? “I think we’ve had 1,200 visitors. People tell us that’s very, very good.” [Emphasis added.] This article says about 100,000 Americans visit Second Life each week, incidentally…and notes the clear draws for Second Life: “Free money and kinky sex.” So, for example, Sexy Beach had a traffic score of 133,000 on a random day in June—compared to Sears’ 281 and Coke’s 27! Not 27,000: 27, or just over 1/5,000th of Sexy Beach’s traffic.

The article notes that you never see a genuine crowd in SL—because the technology won’t support it. Each processor—each “space”—can handle a maximum of 70 avatars simultaneously. “More than that and the service slows to a crawl, some avatars disappear, or the island simply vanishes.” A July article in the Los Angeles Times also notes the general failure of real-life businesses in Second Life, and there’s a long discussion beginning July 14, 2007 at TechCrunch.

Never Let You Go

“Just cancel the @#%$* account” by Tom Spring in the February 2007 PC World tells a disturbing story: How difficult it can be to cancel a web service after you sign up for the “free trial.” It’s no news to AOL users, of course: Getting away from AOL takes serious persistence. The brave reporter signed up for 31 services—then tried to cancel each service. The good news: Nearly half of them (including, Consumer Reports Online, Salon and Vonage) offered no hassle. At the other extreme, ten scored “big hassle”—including not only AOL but NetZero, Real Rhapsody and Real SuperPass, MSN Internet andNetZero. It’s quite a story.

Quicker Takes

Although neither SACD nor DVD-Audio—the two high-resolution and sometimes surround-sound “successor formats” to CD—has gained widespread market success in the US, neither has either one disappeared. A news report in the April 2007 Stereophile indicates that SACD—still the format of choice for several classical record publishers—does much better in other countries. In Japan, one major classical label (Harmonia Mundi) sells half of its classical music in SACD. In parts of Europe, HM’s regional distributors won’t import the CD version of a title that’s available in SACD…and Canada and Taiwan distributors will only accept SACD imports. Overall, for Harmonia Mundi, 15 to 20% of worldwide sales are SACD.

Ø    Podslurping? That’s the hot new name for inside data theft: Sticking an iPod (or flash drive or writable CD or whatever) in your corporate PC and downloading all those valuable secrets. The May 8, 2007 PC Magazine talks about the problem (“the invasion of the data snatchers”) and some solutions (Editors’ Choice goes to DeviceLock, but it won’t run on Vista). Podslurping: Is there no end to neologisms?

Ø    The AAP released its figures for 2006 book sales in the U.S. in late May 2007. There’s good indication that AAP’s figures are too low, leaving out tens of thousands of small publishers, but they’re good indicators. Total sales continued to rise—notably 2.9% for adult and juvenile books (including 8.5% for adult paperbacks). Title production (as reported by Bowker based on Books in Print) also rose, by a little more than 3%—to an astonishing (appalling?) 291,920 new titles and editions in the U.S. Note that the Bowker number is new editions. A typical new fiction book may be counted at least three times, in hardback, trade paper, and mass paperback editions. Some categories did fall: Computer books were down more than 11% to a mere 5,498 and cookbooks were down 10% to 2,793.

Ø    The Second Circuit Court of Appeals slapped down the FCC’s expanded rules for obscenity and indecency, specifically regarding “fleeting expletives” such as Bono’s comment at the Golden Globes. The court called the new policy “arbitrary and capricious” and that the FCC hasn’t offered reasons to toughen its policy. Astonishingly, the FCC now claims it is “difficult (if not impossible) to distinguish whether a word is being used as an expletive or as a literal description of sexual or excretory functions.” The court said, “This defies any commonsense understanding of these words.” What flaming liberal media outlet challenged FCC’s efforts to make sure we never accidentally hear the F-word or the S-word? Fox, among others.

Ø    Do you buy music at iTunes? Are you thrilled about the new, more expensive DRM-free tunes? Did you know that Apple embeds your name and email address into each tune—not encrypted, but in a manner that’s readily available? The Electronic Frontier Foundation isn’t thrilled about this (or the usual responses), and wonders why it’s necessary. Fred von Lohmann’s June 5, 2007 post on the matter notes the response of competitor eMusic (which has never used DRM) when asked about such insertions: “We don’t put any identifying info on our files.”

Ø    Ed Felten did a post a while back noting the “goofy formula” used by Newsweek to rank “America’s best high schools.” How goofy? Showing up for an Advanced Placement exam raises your school’s rating; graduating lowers it. Worse: Newsweek excludes selective schools, those with studeyts scoring well above average on the SAT: You literally can’t be one of America’s best schools if you have good students. Felten noted that his hypothetical Monkey High—attended entirely by monkeys—would be the best high school in the universe using Newsweek’s metrics. Newsweek tries to justify its metric, but Felten notes that three actions continue to improve a school’s score: Force students to show up for AP/IB exams; avoid high SAT scores; and lower the school’s graduation rate. Sounds like a recipe for success to me!

Ø    Here’s another study refuting the old saw that the younger generation doesn’t deal with print. A study by McPheters & Company found that people aged 19 to 34 read more than those 35 and older—specifically more print magazines and as many print newspapers.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 10, Whole Issue 94, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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