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

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 8: July 2007

Interesting & Peculiar Products

Round PCs!

There’s nothing new about a PC designed to be part of an entertainment center. PCs in the shape of audio components have been around for a while, usually running Windows Media Center. The Sony VAIO VGX-TP1 is a little different though: It’s a cylinder, 10.6" in diameter and less than 4" high. $1,600 gets you a dual-core Intel CPU, 2GB RAM, a 300GB hard disk, multiformat DVD burner (what? no Blu-ray?), wireless and Windows Vista Home Premium. Naturally there’s a wireless keyboard and a remote. It’s also designed to run “whisper quiet.”

$1,600 isn’t cheap for a system with no HD drive and no display, but it’s a decently equipped (one might even say “well rounded”) system. The white-gray cylinder (PC World’s description) may be “designed to fit unobtrusively into your living room, or any other room where you watch TV.” But does a round form factor make sense? How many round audio-video components or set-top boxes do you have—other than maybe a portable CD player?

Unwired Everything?

The April 2007 Business 2.0 features a two-page writeup on Powercast, “a technology that replaces electrical wires.” That’s the claim: A transmitter plugs into the wall and a “dime-size receiver” costing $5 to make can be part of any low-voltage device—cell phone, PDA, lighting, wireless keyboard. The secret, supposedly, is a receiver with “tiny but hyperefficient” receiving circuits to capture all that energy that bounces off walls from the transmitter—and all with “safe low wattages.” You have to be within three feet of the transmitter.

I can’t prove that this can’t work, but it has one of two possibilities written all over it:

Ø    Incredible waste of electricity if the receiver’s converting broadcast RF to electricity. Let’s say you have five devices within a three-foot-radius circle of the transmitter. That means the transmitter has to blanket that whole area with enough energy so each device can get what it needs. That would appear to be grotesquely inefficient.

Ø    Perpetual motion, if the above isn’t true. If they’ve somehow solved that problem so that the device is even 10% efficient for three devices—that is, so three receivers each needing two watts requires only 60 watts transmission (still a substantial waste of energy)—then why not populate the three-foot diameter with, say, sixty devices each receiving two watts? At which point you’d be getting 120 watts received power from your 60-watt transmitter: Free energy!

As I remember it, broadcast power diminishes as the square of the distance from the transmitter. So if you can charge a two-watt device three feet away from the unit, you should be able to charge an 18-watt device one foot away from the transmitter…leading to even more free energy!

Supposedly Philips is partnering with Powercast. Philips is certainly a reputable firm. Govi Rao, the Philips VP quoted in the article, says this:

If you had asked me seven months ago if this was possible, I would have said, “Are you dreaming? Have you been smoking something?” But to see it work is just amazing. It could revolutionize what we know about power.

Maybe I’m missing something about the physics of RF radiation, which is certainly possible. Still, I always get nervous when “revolutionize” and basic physical principals appear in the same discussion.


Did I mention that April 2007 was my last issue of Business 2.0? Did I mention how happy that makes me, once I figured out that Business 2.0 was all about making money by any means possible, with scant attention to anything other than the almighty buck? (I guess Business 1.0 was about finding a need and filling it. Business 2.0 appears to be All Money, All the Time, and screw everything else.) In any case, another “What’s next” feature in the April 2007 issue—the “top 10 products, ideas and trends” that we should all be welcoming—is “how to sell with smell.”

“Scent marketing” gives companies “a competitive advantage over ads on the internet”—since scent PC peripherals have notoriously been huge busts in the marketplace. The lesson here isn’t that people really don’t want random scents blasted at them: It’s that advertisers know better. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal will add rub-and-sniff ads, presumably like the Macy’s perfume ads that cause me to remove Macy’s inserts from the house before my wife’s asthma kicks in. Wal-Mart hopes to sell DVDs with “electronic kits that release smells at key moments during a movie,” and it’s certainly the right retailer to stink up the viewing experience. The “Scent Marketing Institute” estimates that $500 million will be spent on scent marketing by 2016, about $80 million this year.

Toward the end of this generally enthusiastic article, it does mention one trifling little drawback: Consumers (never people or citizens: your role and mine is to consume) might object. A lot. Last December, some idiot ad company put chocolate chip cookie-fragranced strips in San Francisco bus shelters for the “Got Milk?” campaign. A few days later, transit authorities ripped out the strips after commuters complained of “allergic reactions” (and presumably asthma attacks). “Lesson learned, says the industry: Enclosed areas should be avoided.” Like homes where scent-stripped magazines and newspapers are read?


This one’s both interesting and peculiar, although it’s more of a technology than a product. As discussed in the May 2007 Fast Company, PodZinger is a “video-search startup” (the writeup says the firm has “largely cracked” the problem of actually searching video, and the veracity of that claim is irrelevant to this discussion). It “spiders the Web looking for videos and dissects RSS feeds for updates.” Then it uses voice recognition to create a “rough transcript of the audio”—rough as in “only 70% accurate.” Then you can search for words in video and might get some results. For advertisers, that could mean a new kind of context-sensitive ad.

But that’s not the key here; so far, it’s an interesting if unproved product. Here’s the kicker:

PodZinger’s spiders will in time be able to track down specific video content on command—a clip from last night’s Daily Show, for example, or everything that belongs to Comedy Central—and insert an ad into each segment, no matter where it is playing. In other words, PodZinger could force each and every YouTuber to watch a short commercial if they want to see the clip they asked for, then tally the number of times it’s played so the advertiser could pay the copyright holder directly. And what if the person posting the material doesn’t want the ad? Tough luck; it’s not his video.

On one hand, this sounds pretty good: Office workers still get to watch clips instead of actually working (the numbers on where video clips are watched seem pretty clear), you’d get ads on Comedy Central anyway, and Everybody’s Happy.

If, of course, those clips “identified” by the magic software are indeed infringements.

As soon as there’s one video that uses Comedy Central material for parody, commentary, or another fair use, and PodZinger forces a commercial into this material, you’ve got a different story: Someone (I’d guess EFF) can and will sue, and probably win.

That can’t happen? Effectively it already has. YouTube took down lots of clips because “content owners” sent takedown notices—and restored some of them that were legitimate fair-use cases. It’s quite likely that other such illegitimate takedowns have happened where the person doing the new creation with elements of the old either wasn’t aware or didn’t have the muscle to fight Big Media.

Even if you’re a copyright hardliner, you should be cautious about saying that “new” creations should never include elements of previous creations. That wipes out a pretty wide swatch of humanity’s cultural record—notably including many important Disney features and most music and literature.

Incidentally, I’m getting lots of press releases touting a different company claiming to have a surefire way to “drain” peer-to-peer networks that contain infringing products, presumably including a way to identify infringing products. The same issues arise, and I’d expect a fast and effective lawsuit the first time “draining” happened for a parody or commentary. There’s a fascinating little video commentary on fair use derived entirely from tiny clips of Disney flicks; I think it would make an interesting test case.

More iPod Bling

I’ve been ignoring the bulk of iPod add-ons. iPod owners who care about fidelity already know the obvious: You need a good set of earphones or earbuds to replace the junk Apple supplies—and good earphones don’t have to be all that expensive. Owners of any portable music device who care about fidelity also know about data rates—that is, 128K MP3 and 128K AAC both compromise fidelity pretty severely. (I don’t buy from iTunes, but 320K non-DRM tracks should be close enough to CD quality for all but the finest ears; nearly all the CDs I listen to are actually CD-Rs converted back to CD audio from MP3 files ripped at 320K from CDs that I own.)

Once in a while, though, something’s irresistible, either because it makes so much sense or because it’s a little odd. I would say that complaining that a $150,000 stereo system because it doesn’t have an iPod dock is on the “odd” side (see My Back Pages). So, in my opinion, is this one—but maybe not. The March 20, 2007 PC Magazine gives 4.5 dots and an Editors’ Choice to the Chestnut Hill Sound George, a stereo clock radio with an iPod dock.

It’s clever, to be sure. The front panel (with an LCD display and lots of controls) snaps out to become a remote control. The clock radio is that—it has AM/FM and a clock function. And the reviewer says, “It’s simply the best-sounding iPod dock I’ve heard.” On the other hand, as with most clock radios, you’ll only get good sound if your ears are at the same level as the radio, it’s easy to hit the mute button when you’re detaching or replacing the remote, chances are stereo effect is pretty minimal and the name is at best silly. One other little drawback: $549.99 plus shipping and handling. For a clock radio. iPod, of course, not included.

But wait! There’s more! The May 2007 Sound & Vision reviews a device that puts your iPod in classic company: Rock-Ola’s iPod Bubbler. It’s just what the first and last words might suggest: A classic jukebox with eight lighted bubble tubes and four rotating color cylinders; as with most modern replica jukeboxes, it holds 100 CDs (still giving you that great record-changing action). But it also has an iPod dock and remote. I won’t argue with the price for a device like this (which has five speakers): $6,000.

Wicked Lasers

As the squib in the April 10, 2007 PC Magazine says, “How can any of this be legal?” This is a website that sells “real lasers”—the kind that can burn holes in trash bags, cut electrical tape and cauterize small cuts. Prices start at $99. Oh, they also sell protective goggles. Of course, you can buy a throwable knife in any supermarket, so legality maybe shouldn’t be an issue here.

Editors’ Choices and Best Buys

PC World’s April 2007 quickie roundup of laptops gives Best Buy honors to the $2,400 HP Pavillion dv9000t among desktop replacements. It has a huge 17" wide screen and a multiformat DVD burner that can read (but not write) HD DVD, weighs 8 pounds and has a 2GHz dual-core Intel CPU. For an all-purpose laptop at less lofty prices, the $1,139 Dell Inspiron E1505 gets the nod: also a 2GHz dual-core CPU (the same one) and a multiformat DVD burner (no high-def), but a 15.4" screen. The Dell’s significantly lighter (6.9 pounds) and the battery lasts more than twice as long (5.3 hours compared to 2.4).

A March 20, 2007 PC Magazine test of five “business laptops”—powerful enough to serve as your work computer, light enough to take with you—gives Editors’ Choice to the $2,299 Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet. As you’d expect for a tablet PC (a convertible, as are most tablets on the market these days), it’s got a smallish screen (12") and is fairly light (4.4lb.); it comes with a dual-core CPU and 100GB hard disk—but at desktop 7,200RPM speed, not the typical notebook 5,400 or 4,200RPM. It also has excellent battery life—seven hours as tested. As tested, it runs Windows XP Tablet Edition; Business and Enterprise versions of Vista include tablet support.

For ultraportables—mostly four pounds and under—PC Magazine’s April 24, 2007 mini-roundup gives Editors’ Choice to the pricey Lenovo ThinkPad X60—but this one’s $2,699 and not a tablet computer. It does come loaded with 2GB RAM and a 7,200RPM 100GB disk (and, of course, an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU)—and Lenovo’s great keyboard (the IBM ThinkPad keyboard). The optical drive is external but the weight’s only 3.7lb.—which, for that matter, is heavier than some competitors.

What’s the best all-around internet security solution? There may not be one answer. For people who want good security without too much hassle, PC Magazine’s current answer is Norton 360 ($80 for up to three PCs, which may be an annual price). “The security protection is effectively the same as that of Norton Internet Security 2007, but with less user interaction required.” It includes backup (with online backup as an option) and “tune up” along with the usual security features. The review, aimed at people who think they’re techies (PC’s readership), says “Buy NIS 2007 for yourself, but get Norton 360 for Granny.”

PC’s broader “security super guide” (April 10, 2007) gives Editors’ Choice honors to Safe Eyes 2006 for parental control and Norton Internet Security 2007 as a suite (with ZoneAlarm Internet Security tied for highest overall dot rating).

Here’s a standalone Editors’ Choice worth noting (April 10, 2007 PC Magazine): the Western Digital My Book Pro Edition. It’s an external hard drive with a snazzy metallic case, LED capacity gauge on the front, solid backup software and three common high-speed interfaces (USB2, FireWire 400, FireWire 800). You pay $330; you get 500 gigabytes. Another external hard drive gets an Editors’ Choice in the May 8, 2007 issue—but it’s a lot pricier and aimed at a different market. The $1,234 CMS Velocity2 RAID Backup System has two 500GB Western Digital drives, both user-replaceable (you can buy extras for $299 each). While you could turn it into a 1GB drive, the more sensible use is RAID 1—giving you 500GB of data stored redundantly. The price noted is with an eSATA card providing much faster transfer than USB2; without the card it’s $1,119. And if you need a “Mac-friendly” external drive, there’s the $340 Iomega UltraMax—two 320GB hard drives configured as a RAID 0 640-GB unit. It’s preformatted for Macs.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 8, Whole Issue 92, 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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