Archive for August, 2009

Mystery Collection, Disc 2

Posted in Movies and TV on August 29th, 2009

Four more B movies, each roughly an hour long—three Dick Tracy, one The Shadow. Most of the way through the first, I realized that I’d seen it before: Five years ago, on a freebie old-movie set that preceded the megapacks. But, of course, since the two aren’t from the same company, the print quality might be different, and it’s only an hour, so… (The second Tracy was also on the earlier set.)

Dick Tracy Detective (aka Dick Tracy), 1945, b&w. William Berke (dir.), Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Mike Mazurki, Jane Greeer, Lyle Latell, Joseph Crehan, Mickey Kuhn. 1:01.

This movie has some of the virtues of comic books (snappy dialogue) but more depth to its characters than you might expect—and it’s not played as a live-action comic strip. It’s no wonder Tess Trueheart (Jeffreys), Tracy’s fiancée, is so slender: They never manage to go out to dinner and she’s mostly waiting up for him. For good reason: There have been three slashing murders, each apparently linked to a payment demand from “Splitface,” and the mayor’s terrified because he’s received such a demand. Other than the murder method and the payment demand, they don’t seem to have anything in common. Dick Tracy is, of course, on the job.

Turns out they do have something in common—and unless Tracy intercedes, there will soon be 15 deaths in all. There’s an astrologer/astronomer who sees a little more in his crystal ball than is strictly healthy and an undertaker named “Deathridge.” It all comes to a head in a satisfying manner for a flick of this particular genre. Not great art, but well done of its kind. Only some blips in the generally-good print lower this to $0.75.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, 1947, b&w. John Rawlins (dir.), Boris Karloff, Ralph Byrd, Anne Gwynne, Edward Ashley. 1:05.

Gruesome being Boris Karloff—really not in any way gruesome enough for the name, but it’s just as well that they didn’t make him up badly. The story this time is that he’s out of prison, wants a new score and tracks down a scientist who’s developed a freeze-bomb: A grenade that releases a gas that paralyzes people for a short time. What a great way to rob a bank!

Ah, but Tess is in the bank, happens to be using an enclosed phone booth and so, unlike everybody in a very large bank, doesn’t get frozen. (Apparently they had airtight phone booths back in the day…) She calls Dick and the chase is on…

More plot, less character. Trademark comic book names: Dr. Lee Thal, Dr. I.M. Learned, Dr. A. Tomic. A different Tracy (Byrd), who I found perhaps more lantern-jawed but less appealing. The frozen-people effects are amusing, but I found this one considerably less appealing than the first. The print’s fine, so it all balances out to the same: $0.75.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, 1946, b&w. Gordon Douglas (dir.), Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Lyle Latell, Rita Corday, Ian Keith, Esther Howard. 1:02.

Cueball is one of several aliases for a bald crook just out of prison, who’s obtained some stolen rare gems and strangled a person (aboard a docked cruise ship) in the process, using a knotted leather strip that turns out to be a hatband made in Cueball’s prison.

The plot involves a jeweler and his employees (the jeweler apparently honest, employees not so much), an antique dealer (decidedly less than upstanding) along with Vitamin Flintheart and the usual cast. Several murders, some saloon action, a high-speed car chase or two, and Tracy’s sidekick getting knocked out again. We get some of those classic Tracy names—Jules Sparkle (jeweler), Percival Priceless (crooked antique dealer), Filthy Flora (proprietor of the Dripping Dagger saloon). The end of Cueball is dramatic, if a bit unsatisfying.

For some reason, I found this the most enjoyable of the Tracy trio—the tone, acting and plot all seemed to gel nicely. Ian Keith is a hoot as the eccentric Vitamin Flintheart and Dick Wessel does a solid job as Harry ‘Cueball’ Lake. The print’s good, although the sound has some background noise. It’s still a one-hour B flick, but I’ll give it $1.00.

The Shadow Strikes, 1937, b&w. Lynn Shores (dir.), Rod La Rocque, Agnes Anderson, James Blakely, Walter McGrail. 1:01.

Man-about-town Lamont Cranston swoops down on criminals, shrouded in a black cape, while still trying to solve the mystery of his father’s murder. Because of such swooping, he winds up impersonating a lawyer and witnessing the death of a wealthy man about to change his will—and, of course, must work to find the murderer.

All nicely done—but the movie Shadow has no apparent ability to cloud men’s minds or anything of the sort. He’s just quiet and sneaky. He doesn’t even wear a disguise. The movie uses none of the classic Shadow lines—and at times Cranston’s last name seems to begin with a “G.” It’s a decent B flick, but nothing special. $0.75.

It’s not easy being greener…

Posted in Stuff on August 28th, 2009

Disclaimer: This is not a “more environmentally sound than you” post. We’re not. We don’t own a hybrid (largely because we drive as little as possible, Honda Civics already get good gas mileage, and we can’t see the validity of junking four-year-old and eight-year-old “like new” cars). We don’t go to extremes in general–for example, we won’t use dimmable CFLs because they don’t work worth a damn if you have either hearing or eyesight left.
On the other hand, we are Nature Conservancy members, we’re native Californians (look at the record for California’s energy consumption per capita, and changes in that energy consumption in recent years–the state’s doing pretty well), and we do believe in doing the right thing if it makes any sense at all.
This is about how your ingrained habits can get in the way of “easy fixes.”

Backstory

We used to live in Mountain View. Very few people there have AC; we were no exceptions. On the rare occasions (once or twice a year, typically) when it got into the 90s for three days running, we’d just get hot in the afternoon and cope with it (and, of course, open the windows and run fans in the cooler mornings and evenings).
We’d thought about adding solar (photovoltaic), but we knew we were moving.
We moved to Livermore–where AC is fairly standard, since it gets into the 90s and low 100s a lot more frequently. (As I write this, it’s 98.8F on one outside gauge, 101F on the other–and 79 inside, since we have pretty good insulation.) And we awaited our first utility bills with some nervousness–it’s a much bigger house (2,114 square feet instead of 1,320), we haven’t replaced as many lights with CFL yet (some fixture oddities to be resolved in the future), and who knew what AC would use?
We’d already planned to add photovoltaic here–and found that the companies want to see a few months’ utility bills so they can suggest system size and project possible return on investment.

Frontstory

But…

  • We’ve long been in the habit of turning off lights when we leave rooms–maybe the way we grew up, maybe other reasons.
  • We’ve never used TV for companionship or had other high-consumption habits, we’ve never left chargers sitting in sockets (we don’t own that many things that require charging)…
  • Like our old house, the new one has double-pane windows and patio doors throughout…and excellent insulation. The new one also has tile floors.
  • The new house had an Energy Star refrigerator (which we liked better than the Energy Star refrigerator we already owned) and an Energy Star water heater. We’d already gone to a front-loading washer (Energy Star–aren’t all of them?) and, although the dryer’s older, a front-loader does a lot of the drying up front.
  • We were already planning to replace the 20-year-old/inefficient furnace and 40-year-old/inefficient AC with a new HVAC system, which turned out to be smaller units and very high efficiency (16 SEER AC, 94.5AFUE furnace)–although that replacement just happened last week, so we don’t know the effects.
  • I’m aware of parasitic energy. My PC equipment–other than the modem and router–is on a power strip that I switch off when I’m not using it, which should result in zero parasitic energy. (In any case, both of our computers are fairly ordinary notebooks, which don’t use a whole lot of power to begin with.) When/if I get around to buying a Kill-a-Watt meter, I’ll test the parasitic usage of the TV, DVD player and (for now) VCR; if it’s more than 10 watts, I’ll start flipping that power strip switch also. (But, of course, we’ll be replacing the old CRT-based TV…with, most likely, an LED-lit LCD, using much less power even with a larger screen.)

None of this is “let’s see how little energy we can use”; none has any negative impact on our lives (turning off lightswitches is a habit, not a nuisance–and we have LED nightlights in enough places to avoid problems, at 0.3 watts per light).
Oh, we also set AC at 80F (78-79F if we have guests) and heat at 68-70F, but that’s because neither of us likes huge differentials between the inside and outside–we’re comfortable at those temperatures.
So we got the first month’s utility bill, for a month that had three or four 100+ days. Electricity use: Around 440kWH. Total bill: Less than I’d expected, by quite a bit. Hmm.
We started calling solar companies. By the time any of them came out, there was another half-month experience (and yes, I can read an electric meter: I’m not a DIYer, but I’m not a complete idiot), and it looked like we’d have to try real hard to exceed 450kWH for the month. So I told companies, “Assume 450 to 500 kWH/month.” The estimators looked at the size of our house and basically challenged those figures as being too low. Eventually, though, particularly after we had a second bill (430kWH, I believe), they said “OK”–but that made bids difficult, particularly since most companies don’t want to install anything under 2.6kW generating capacity, and the best ROI is based on replacing 60% to 70% of your energy usage and using time-of-use monitoring.
The guy representing the company we’re finally using was honest: He said our power usage was too low to expect any major payback from solar. He was also willing to install a smaller system (he started out at 2.25KW, we boosted it to 2.45). We assured him that we weren’t looking for hot financial gains–we really wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and not feel guilty if we did use a little more power. (Meanwhile, to be sure, we were increasing our HVAC efficiently considerably–and selecting a more reflective new roof.)

One question was, I’m afraid, a little too true to life. We have an ideal roof for solar–facing due south, with no shade trees–but it’s a hip roof that’s almost totally invisible from the street. At least one estimator asked whether we’d rather do the installation on our front roof–which wouldn’t generate as much power, but would let all the neighbors know we had a solar installation. He said this question came from experience… We laughed and said, No, we’ll use the ideal roof, not the publicity gimmick.

Oh, we just got our third month’s utility bill, for a month with quite a bit of hot weather. 390kWH. Before installing the new HVAC…

Moral

If you already have reasonable habits, if you’re not casually wasting energy anyway, it’s not easy being greener.
Yes, we’ll be cutting PG&E’s peak load (since peak solar generation, at least in the summer, is also peak power usage), which also means reducing the need (or desire) for “peaker” plants, usually the nastiest ecologically–in California, at least, where coal is extremely unlikely–and most expensive to run. Yes, we should be reducing our carbon footprint. (By the way, we’re using thin-film panels, made in the U.S. rather than China and with extremely good recyclability.)
No, we don’t expect that the system will pay for itself over the usual 18-year lifespan. It’s quite possible that we’ll wind up giving electricity to PG&E over the course of each year; that’s OK, within limits. We’d built the cost of the installation into our plans when buying the house; we’re comfortable with the outcome. And dollar savings was never the basis for going solar…which, as it turns out, is just as well.

Open access: Giving up on a theme?

Posted in Cites & Insights on August 25th, 2009

I raised this question on FriendFeed, but thought I’d raise it here as well, since I think there’s a much wider audience and suspect there’s more overlap with Cites & Insights readers.
Here’s the question:
Should I give up on Library Access to Scholarship as a continuing aspect of Cites & Insights coverage?

What it is

For those who don’t read Cites & Insights, Library Access to Scholarship is one of several running heads for periodic essays on a given topic. The topic, in this case, is what it says–but that means it’s been primarily about open access.
The difference between my coverage and others, I suppose, is that I’m focused on the library aspect of all this–that is, can OA decrease the extent to which scientific, technical and medical journals are undermining academic libraries’ ability to pay for anything else–such as monographs and other books? Of course, I’m also interested in other issues of OA, but usually with that slant.

Where it is

I’ve done a fair number of LAS/OA essays–but not recently. So far, the section’s only appeared once in 2009 (in the April issue). In 2008, it appeared in April, August and November. In 2007, it appeared in April (hmm: is there a theme here?), July and October. In 2006: May, October (two essays) and December.
In 2005, I see essays in January, March, June and November. In 2004, January (two essays), March, June, September and November. (Before March 2004, I used “Scholarly Article Access” or “Scholarly Access” as a heading–before I deliberately slanted the coverage to library-related issues.) 2003: May, July, September and November (two essays). Before late 2002, I didn’t use thematic headings as much, but I believe there were three related essays in 2001 and 2002.
In other words, while it’s never been a dominant theme, it’s been a significant recurring theme–more than two dozen essays, probably more than a book’s worth if I slapped them all together.

What’s the point?

Right now, I have 34 leadsheets in the Library Access to Scholarship folder–and another 50 items tagged”oa” in delicious. Eighty-four items in all.
Based on past experience, if I did my usual excerpts-and-commentary-with-synthesis approach, 84 items would yield around 42 pages. Realistically, that would be something like four ten-page articles.
And, frankly, I have very little desire to do the usual excerpts-and-commentary-with-synthesis on all of this material.

  1. Value added: I’ve never felt that I could add much value to Peter Suber’s commentaries or, for that matter, Dorothea Salo’s (when she was focusing on these issues). I’ve given up engaging Stevan Harnad or directly discussing his monotone writing. Lately, I’m not sure my synthesis and commentary are adding much value to any of this.
  2. Effectiveness: Most Cites & Insights readers are within the library field, I believe–and that’s only reasonable, since that’s my background and the focus of most topical areas. So I’m probably not reaching many scientists–or, if I am, I’m probably not doing much to convince them to do more about OA and access-related issues. As for librarians, I’d guess that my readers are mostly already convinced–that I’m neither educating nor convincing much of anybody who doesn’t already get it. (I’d guess 1% to 3% of librarians read C&I, spiking to 25% or more for one particular issue. Those who need educating are mostly in the other 97%, I suspect.)
  3. Futility: Given what I’m reading from scientists as to how they relate to libraries and librarians, and given what I’m reading as to how they make decisions on where to publish and where to exert pressure, I’m feeling pretty futile about the whole effort. Not necessarily about OA as such–but definitely about my ability to make a difference.

Am I missing something?

That’s the open question. There are plenty of other places to find out about open access, most of them much more consistent in their coverage. For that matter, the cluster of OA-related articles on the Library Leadership Network draws pretty good readership, and I’ll probably keep maintaining those.
If I’m missing something about C&I’s role or effectiveness in this area, I’m open to suggestions. But I look at article readership, feedback (or lack thereof), and my general sense of futility (and lassitude and the merits of taking a nap…) whenever I look at that folder and I think…maybe it’s time to close that section.
If I do, I’ll probably do a “brain dump”–very brief notes on some (probably not all) of the 84 outstanding items. I might, just for fun, put all 25-26 of the essays together and see whether they make anything coherent enough to be given away as a combined PDF and sold as a PoD paperback. (My guess is they don’t, but it would be easy to find out–and if I do this one, I would set the PDF price to $0 and give it an explicit BY-NC license, just as C&I has a BY-NC license.)
I won’t make a decision until at least this weekend. Comments invited.


Addendum, later on Tuesday
Just for fun, I added a column to my infrequently-updated “civiews” spreadsheet–tracking downloads for issues and pageviews for essays–flagging each essay with a general category. (HTML essays didn’t begin until 2004 and weren’t consistently provided until 2005.)
Then I did a quick PivotTable on categories, total pageviews, number of essays in each category, and average pageviews per essay. Turns out there are slightly more HTML pageviews through 8/7/09 (just under 600,000) than there are whole-issue PDF downloads (just under 500,000).
I’m not sure how significant the results are, but they’re interesting:

  • Nineteen essays related to blogs and blogging are tops, with more than 2,900 pageviews each (in addition to whole-issue downloads).
  • Nine essays related to Google Books and the Open Content Alliance come in a close second, just under 2,900 pageviews each.
  • Eight essays related to net media (excluding nine related to Wikipedia and other wikis, averaging 1,700 pageviews) averaged just under 2,800 pageviews each.

From there, it’s a significant drop to eight conference-related essays (2,372 average), 25 copyright-related essays (2,242 average) and four (older) censorware-related essays (2,070 average)–and the whole slew of essays directly related to libraries and librarians (what’s now called “Making it Work”), 43 of them averaging just over 2,000 each.
Library Access to Scholarship? Actually better than I expected, with an average of 1,857 pageviews–just below the five ebook essays and just above the 25 Perspectives that don’t fall neatly into a category and 30 product roundups.
So “lack of readership” isn’t a primary reason to dump this section, although it’s one of the weakest thematic sections. But high readership also isn’t a reason to keep it.

Maybe I’m…

Posted in Media, Writing and blogging on August 24th, 2009

I would add “…doing it wrong,” pace Randy Newman, but I wrote that post a few months ago.
And I was just pointed to a blog post (by someone I wouldn’t normally follow, but there’s a family relationship) about this person’s use of Twitter and someone else suggesting what tweets should and shouldn’t do. The blogger had an appropriate response, stated much more politely than I might state it–in essence, (a) there’s more than one way to use Twitter, (b) if you don’t like my tweets, feel free not to follow me.
In other words, someone proposed their version of The Rules for Twitter, and this blogger wasn’t buying them. To which I can only say, Hooray.

(There are seemingly endless sets of The Rules for blogging and other social media, and lately The Rules almost always seem to posit that we use these media to Build Our Brands–that the only legitimate motivation for a blog is gaining lots of readers and mindshare. “Pfft” is way too polite a response and my two-word response violates my own standards for this blog, so…)

But maybe I’m doing it wrong…

A few months ago–10 days after that earlier post, apparently (that is, on March 21, 2009)–I started using delicious. (I hadn’t seen the point of it, since I don’t really build an online bibliography–but after some other people were talking about it, I realized that I do have a use for it: to flag pages that could be source material either for the Library Leadership Network or for Cites & Insights.)
It’s working well in that regard. Instead of printing out a leadsheet (the first page, assuming the source plays nicely with Firefox) for later reference, I tag the page–and then, when I think I’m likely to be working on a topic, I’ll go through that tag, delete a few pages that I’m not going to use, and print leadsheets for others, then use delicious as a home for finding those items as I’m writing about them. Right now, there are 549 tagged items.
So far, so good–but if there’s a set of norms for delicious as a social medium, I suspect I’ve been violating it all along, and it’s getting worse.
To wit:

  • Some of my tags are meaningless to almost everybody else–e.g., miw, cifeedback, ir, mbp, lln, tqt. (Long-time C&I readers can probably guess what miw and mbp and tqt stand for.) Others are obscure but may make sense to a few other people, e.g. oa, oca, gbs–that is, open access, the Open Content Alliance, and Google Book Search/Google Book Settlement.
  • I delete items once I’ve written about them.
  • The newest violation of The Rules: When I do print off leadsheets, I modify the tag so that I know I’ve printed off leadsheets and won’t try to do it again. So, for example, 21 items tagged “deathprint” (which most people could probably figure out as “death of print”) became “deathprintx”–and then disappeared as I worked them into an essay.
  • I have yet to pay any attention to “popular” or “recent” tags–and I rarely pay much attention to the set of proposed tags for an item that come from everybody else.

In other words, I’m not a very “social” user of delicious. Such is life.
(If there’s one change in delicious I’d love to see but regard as unreasonable, it’s this: It would be lovely if delicious recognized that a URL was part of Bloglines or an equivalent service and pointed out that you’re not really tagging a page you can get back to. OK, so I’m an idiot sometimes…it’s just so easy to click on the square of squares up on the toolbar and tag away, not realizing that I haven’t clicked through to an actual post.)

Maybe they’re doing it wrong…

I encountered something today that, while minor, suggests that I’m not the only one with “norm” problems.
To wit: I wanted to unsubscribe from someone else’s Friendfeed account; they’re not really a friend or even acquaintance, and I found that 90% of their updates, while perfectly charming, were simply noise for me.
And I couldn’t find any way to do it. The mouseover menu doesn’t include Unsubscribe. I clicked on the person’s name, which brought up their profile–and there was no Unsubscribe option there either. Wha?
I temporarily dealt with it by removing them from all lists, including Home. Later, Iris Jastram noted (on FriendFeed, of course) that some FriendFeed styles actually hide the options from the profile–the Unsubscribe option still works, but you have to guess at where to click since there’s no text or box.
Went back, clicked on the place where I thought the Unsubscribe option should be, and got confirmation that I was unsubscribed.
This, to me, really does violate the spirit of FriendFeed–which, in this case, I’d summarize as “easy come, easy go.” It’s easy to subscribe to someone (unless they have a private feed), it’s easy to hide (most) aspects of overactive feeds without actually getting rid of the users…and it’s easy to unsubscribe from someone if situations change. Only not so much, if they’re allowed to hide that option.
This is really a FriendFeed issue, though. My subscription to Person X is part of my settings. It’s only secondarily part of Person X’s profile.
Minor stuff, to be sure. And I still don’t buy into The Rules…any more than I’m ready to add some badge to my blog. (Ah, but that’s another topic, one I might not get to for a while, maybe never.)

It’s not called Portentous Posts from the Pacific

Posted in Writing and blogging on August 21st, 2009

Another liblogger, Doug Johnson, wrote a post recently about the failure of his “comment predictor” to work.

I’ll be damned if I can predict which entries will result in an outpouring of reactions and which will create a resounding silence – or just a couple whimpers.

You carefully prepare a series of cogent posts, important to the field, that should yield discussion. Nada.
You slap together a trivial comment on the spur of the moment. Whoa Nelly!
After several comments from bloggers indicating the same curiosity, Johnson suggested this (noting that his blog is The Blue Skunk Blog):

The Blue Skunk Rule of Comments: The more trivial the post, the larger the response.

Yep.

Between August 17 and August 20, I posted three entries on this blog (and at least one on my “remnant” blog, Walt, Even Randomer). For me, that’s a veritable flood of activity.
One of the posts was a brief, but carefully prepared, tribute to one of the pioneers of open access publishing–a journal established years before “open access” was a known term. Since I’d been involved in the journal, I couldn’t let the 20th anniversary go by–and I thought there might be some comments. Not so much.
Another was, I thought, a fairly substantive post about channels and content–heck, I even threw in a published column (one very few readers will have seen) for free. Not one comment.
The third…well, the third was a prime example of why this blog is called Walt at Random. Tossed together over maybe 10 minutes during a virtual coffee break (I telecommute for my part-time contracting job, so there are virtual coffee breaks; in any case, I normally only drink that one cup of really good just-ground Kauai coffee each morning, so any coffee breaks are virtual), it appeared only because I was a little peeved at what I considered specious threats-to-First-Amendment claims, namely that anonymity should be protected by the First Amendment even if it’s used for legally actionable speech. It was quickly written and quickly posted; it was a brief note.
And it drew a bunch of comments, a couple of them slightly hostile. One of them convinced me to add a clarification–after all, it was a quickly-written post.

Another digression: I can get irritable about free speech issues partly because I was at UC Berkeley throughout The Troubles. The Free Speech Movement was precisely about prior restrictions on speech–at the time, there were whole categories of speakers who could not appear anywhere on the Berkeley campus, thanks to restrictions from the Regents. Understand: I wasn’t directly involved with FSM (although I should have been), but I listened. They were dead on–and they expected consequences. When they were arrested for sitting in, they dealt with it, they didn’t try to duck it. Oh, and they won: the restrictions were lifted.

That’s neither here not there. The most recent comment (other than my own), as I read this, is what triggered this post. The commenter misreads my motivation (and the post, as far as I’m concerned)–but correctly says that the post isn’t all that novel or provocative. (OK, so the commenter also says “everybody understands” something–and if that was true, my post would never have appeared. Actually, “everybody understands” is almost always a false generalization, including “that the earth orbits the sun” or “that the earth was not created 4,000 years ago.” But, again, never mind.)
The commenter gives the post a “meh”–I’ll take that as a Gentleperson’s C-.

Meh. So?

[Not to get into a Sounds of Music moment…]
I started this blog a little more than four years ago, somewhat on a whim.
The first post appeared on April 1, 2005. That date was not an accident. (I actually wrote the post a day ahead of time and used WordPress’ delayed-publishing feature.)
Here’s some of what I said back then:

It’s been a short time coming (and a long time avoiding), but today seemed like the ideal day to start this weblog–the significance of the day matches the significance of the blog.
For those of you who read Cites & Insights and wonder how Walt at Random relates to it, the only possible answer is: I don’t really know yet. The blog may be an extension of (and largely replacement for) my LISNews blog lite. It may add those comments about cruising (on rivers and oceans, for those looking for ambiguity), music, food, and all those other subjects that are still outside C&I’s scope. It may include updates that seem to require immediate attention or comments too snarky for the journal.
It may even wither, like most new blogs. Maybe I really don’t have much more to say than the quarter-million words I typically publish each year. We shall see…

I removed a few of the cruising posts and old-movie posts when I brought the blog over to ScienceBlogs (those are still on Walt, Even Randomer). That doesn’t suddenly make this blog portentous.
Most of my “major” writing appears either in Cites & Insights or in one of the two magazine columns I write…or, these days, on the Library Leadership Network. The blog is for…well, extras. Minor thoughts. Gripes. “Out of scope” notes.
Stuff, in other words.
[Loyal C&I readers can stop laughing: Yes, of course much of C&I is trivial as well. But at least it goes through an editing cycle, which is not true of these little essays.]
There are thousands of serious blogs that contain only novel and provocative entries.

“Thousands” is used advisedly. As far as I know, there are currently anywhere from 1.5 million to seven million active blogs [Technorati 2008 State of the Blogosphere report] depending on your definition of “active.” I’m reasonably certain that at least one-tenth of one percent of those–that is, 1,500 to 7,000–are serious blogs containing only novel and provocative entries. I wouldn’t be willing to assert that, say, a full one percent of them are.

This isn’t one of them.

A brief note about the First Amendment

Posted in Writing and blogging on August 20th, 2009

I haven’t tracked down a link, but some of you have probably seen this one.
A blogger, writing anonymously/pseudonymously, posted something about someone else (by name) that at least appears to be slander–that is, stating (possible) falsehoods in a manner likely to damage the other person, with reckless disregard for the truth.
Note the difference between opinion (“So-and-so is an awful person”–not generally actionable) and falsehoods (“So-and-so takes bribes”–actionable, albeit not the issue in this case).
The person slandered is suing–and demanded the blogger’s name from their host. And got it.
So far so good…until some people started screaming about the First Amendment and the long tradition of anonymity.

The First Amendment is not at issue*SEE “Clarification”*

The First Amendment prevents prior restraint against speech (except in very narrow cases).
It does not and should not assure that speech never has consequences.
There’s a huge difference between being free to say any fool thing you want–and being able to do so without ever facing consequences. Otherwise, there could be no libel & slander laws. I, for one, wouldn’t really want that–although I appreciate that U.S. libel & slander laws tend to work in favor of speakers rather than those spoken about. (Not true in many other jurisdictions.)
Assured anonymity under all circumstances means speech without consequences. Not automatically a good thing, Tom Paine or no Tom Paine.
Am I wrong? Should the identity of a blogger be protected even when the blogger uses that shield to engage in illegal activities?


Clarification

The subhead “The First Amendment is not at issue” was a shorthand way of saying, “If Person X has defamed Person Y in a manner that’s legally actionable, and Person X is hiding behind anonymity, the First Amendment should not protect Person X’s anonymity.”
I did not intend to say that the First Amendment was never a factor in libel & slander cases. I certainly did not intend to say that prior restraint is 100% of the First Amendment. I did–and do–say that the First Amendment does not assure that speech never has consequences.
This was a quick post, posted because I do care about free speech (heck, I was at UC Berkeley from 1962-1979, as a student and staff member), I do believe anonymity has many legitimate uses, and it bothers me to see what I regard as a misuse of First Amendment claims–such as what I saw as a claim that the First Amendment should always assure anonymity.
The speed with which the post was written resulted in a too-terse subhead. My apologies.

Two quick notes

Posted in Books and publishing on August 20th, 2009
  1. Public Library Blogs: 252 Examples (that’s the CreateSpace link for the paperback version; you can buy the Lulu PDF download here) will go permanently out of print and off sale on or shortly after September 1, 2009.
  2. I’m still pondering a continuation of liblog research, torn between the economics (“don’t do it!”) and the current history (“do it, chump!”). Unclear when I’ll make a decision–but if there’s no decision by, say, October, that becomes a negative decision.

Channels are easy, content is hard

Posted in Media on August 19th, 2009

What we have here is a contemporary item that reminds me of a several-year-old backstory. I’ll give you the item first; then, I’ll quote the backstory.

The item

Consumerist, that sometimes-good, sometimes-absurd compilation of consumer complaints and snarky comments (does Consumer Reports really understand what it purchased when it purchased this?), has a followup item yesterday: “Dave Carroll launches second ‘United breaks guitars’ song and video.” It links to a YouTube video of the song.
Go watch. I’ll wait.
Oh, and if you hadn’t already done so, go to the earlier post from July 2009 and click through to the YouTube video of that song.
The Consumerist issue here–that United baggage handlers (apparently) wrecked Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar during a change of planes at O’Hare, and that in a year of discussing the situation with United he could never get them to take responsibility for fixing the guitar–is interesting, but perhaps secondary.

Given that Carroll has now said he doesn’t want United’s money, but would be happy if they’d donate the amount to a charity, it’s pretty clear that the original problem is a little secondary to him as well. There may also be aspects of this story, on one side or another, that haven’t appeared on Consumerist

What I get out of it is a little different, and for once the post title is also the legitimate lead sentence for the post, when prefaced with “With the rise of social media or the read/write web…”
”’Channels are easy, content is hard.”’
Which is to say:

  • Any idiot can put a “song” or a “video” on YouTube.
  • Don’t like YouTube? There are lots of other choices–channels are easy.
  • For little or no money, your homemade media has as good a shot at worldwide success as any professional effort. It’s a revolution!

OK, so I don’t believe that third one any more than most of you do (or maybe you do?). It’s pretty unusual for homemade media to achieve “worldwide success” at the level of, say, Ron Howard or Queen Latifah or Don Brown or any of those…
Part of that is distribution and promotion–but another part of it is talent.
I rarely listen to full “user-generated” songs or watch full “user-generated” videos on YouTube or elsewhere, even ones related to my field, because most of them aren’t very good. Maybe I’m choosing the wrong ones, and it’s true that I prefer singing to yelling, but most of what I’ve seen is “amateur hour”–not just amateur (done for love, and can be extremely high quality) but lacking in talent.
To me, maybe because I’ve been writing for a long time, it’s harder to write a good song than it is to write a good article; it’s harder to sing a song well than it is to…well, write a good article; and it’s much harder to bring together all the skills required to prepare a competent video.
That made these two songs breaths of fresh air: To my ear, at least, Carroll is a talented writer, singer and musician–and the videography is generally good in the first song, much better in the sequel. I enjoyed the songs as songs, all the way through. (OK, they’re not whatever the newest wave is. Maybe I should move to Nova Scotia? )

The backstory

Turns out I’ve written about this before. The following column appeared, possibly in slightly different form (this version is what was submitted; I haven’t corrected for editorial work), as “Rich Media is Hard” in the May 2006 EContent Magazine, in my ongoing “discontent” column:

Heard about the Read/Write Web? It’s an instant cliché most econtent professionals need to be aware of: The growing importance of user-generated content–and the preference of many users for content coming from other users.
I’ve discussed this before (October 2001 and February 2003), back when it was an interesting new trend. Now it’s a phenomenon. I spend more web time reading “nonprofessional” material than I do reading pro content and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s a considerable change from traditional media, where the sheer cost of publication and distribution limit most of the field to the pros. I’m not sure it’s the kind of change people expected.
Rich media is one of this issue’s themes, and rich media may be where you as professionals still have an edge over “amateur” users. I could be wrong, but I’m inclined to believe this principle is likely to hold true for a while: The richer the medium, the more people will prefer professional content.
The reason is simple: This stuff is hard.
That’s true for traditional media. One person with an idea, literacy, and time can write a book. Fewer people have the skills to write music or produce paintings that will please listeners and viewers. But those are nothing compared to truly rich media, the net equivalent of television or the movies. That’s just plain hard. I believe the principle holds equally true in net media, if the goal is to produce something that will satisfy the reader or viewer.
Any idiot with moderate literacy can write a blog (and quite a few of them do, along with many sophisticated, knowledgeable writers). Recent web developments eliminate tool complexity as a barrier. If you can write, you can create a blog or a wiki or add to a collaborative review space. Most people can write well enough to submit posts or reviews that a few other people will want to read.
Podcasts are almost as easy to generate as blogs–but you have to be comfortable speaking to an unknown audience in a coherent, organized manner. That’s harder for many of us than informal writing. I don’t doubt that there are tens of thousands of amateur podcasts–but I’ll bet the continuing audience for amateur podcasts is at most one-tenth as large as for blogs.
Podcasts aren’t particularly rich media. Even vlogs (videoblogs) aren’t really rich media, not if they’re basically talking into a webcam and mike and recording the results for playback. But they’re enough richer to discourage many people–quite apart from the facts that many of us would find videoblogging uncomfortably close to public speaking, don’t necessarily want our speaking mugs on the web for all to watch, and may not even own webcams.
Sites such as OurMedia have made it easier to get vlogs and other amateur rich media out there for people to see. A search on “vlog” in Yahoo Video yields a few thousand entries. But are people willing to watching amateur talking faces for very long? I suspect not. I’ll guess the continuing audience for amateur vlogs (excluding amateur porn) is another order of magnitude smaller than for podcasts, partly because it’s just plain harder to do a satisfactory video.
Even for true rich media, epitomized by TV programs and movies, the financial and distribution barriers to entry have come down. You can buy a digital videocam for a few hundred dollars, a high-definition videocam for $2,000, and pretty good nonlinear video editing software for $100–and either OurMedia or the Internet Archive will host appropriately-licensed video for free.
When Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle covered the Sundance Festival four years ago, he called high-definition video the best trend of that year. His final sentence: “In the future, anyone with talent will be able to make films.”
Consider those three key words: Anyone with talent–or, realistically, anyone with talent and the resources to gather people with the other talents you need to make a movie or truly engrossing video work. Creating a believable story in moving visual media is much harder than writing a book or posting a listenable podcast or producing a readable blog.
Point a webcam out a window: Easy but usually uninteresting. Write a screenplay, find a cast, scout locations (and build the ones you can’t find), assemble the crew, film it all, edit the results (and add music), and revise it after test screenings–oh, and pay for the whole thing. That’s moviemaking, and it’s a complex way to tell a story.
For now, pros have the edge when it comes to truly rich media. I think that edge will hold for a while just because rich media is hard–and there’s too much of it out there to tolerate badly-done amateur stuff for very long. It’s an edge; can you make the most of it?

What’s changed since 2006? There are lots more free and cheap ways to distribute rich media. There’s a lot more of it. Equipment costs continue to drop–I think you can get flipcams with HD capabilities for under $200.
Unfortunately (in my opinion), some lacks of talent can be masked: With “correcting” microphones, we may not even know whether some “professional” singers are capable of singing in tune, or whether some of them know what “in tune” even means.
The need for talent? Still there. And still relatively rare. Which made these songs such a pleasure. Glad Carroll got his guitar fixed.

It was twenty years ago today

Posted in Books and publishing on August 17th, 2009

OK, technically, yesterday–and if Charles W. Bailey hadn’t posted about it on DigitalKoans, I wouldn’t have noticed.
Namely, that The Public-Access Computer Systems Review was established on August 16, 1989.
PACS Review (as it was frequently called) wasn’t called an open access journal at the time, because that term didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t called a “libre” open access journal–but that’s what it was. Authors retained their copyright, the journal was free for readers, there were provisions for noncommercial use. I’m not sure all permission barriers were removed, but most certainly were.
The first issue of PACS Review appeared in 1990. The last–42 issues later–appeared in 1998. (Bailey’s post has more detail.)
PACS Review wasn’t the first freely available peer-reviewed online-only journal. I believe it was the first within the library field.
PACS Review didn’t have author-side charges. Nor did it have subscription fees. All of the work was voluntary; the University of Houston covered server costs (and still does). In early years, each issue consisted of a series of plain ASCII files. In 1995 and beyond, you could get either ASCII or HTML.
There was also, after some discussion and mild controversy, an inexpensive after-the-fact print version of each PACS Review volume for the first five years. I know; I not only argued for providing such a version, I agreed to prepare the camera-ready copy for the trade paperback volums, marking up the ASCII and preparing the books in Ventura Publisher (back when it used GEM as a GUI environment, before Windows was a plausible choice). LITA actually published the annual volumes; I still have a set at home.

As usual, I was taking the easy way out. I’d joined the editorial board some time after the journal was founded, but was never active in soliciting or reviewing manuscripts. I was using desktop publishing to produce the LITA Newsletter; preparing a book template and marking up the ASCII was easy.

Other than turning it into a print annual for five years, I had modest involvement with PACS Review. I wrote a column, “Public-Access Provocations,” that appeared in nine issues over the first four years; I also wrote five other articles and brief pieces for the journal.
Others, and particularly Charles W. Bailey, Jr., and other editors and co-editors, played much larger roles.
The journal was, I believe, significant for its time. Some of the articles still bear reading at this late date. (If anyone claims that some journal from the late 1990s, or even early 1990s, was the first free refereed ejournal, point them to PACS Review2:1, 1991, a special issue including more than half a dozen articles on true pioneers in early online access!)
Twenty years. It seems like only thirty or forty years ago…

Followup: Still insufficiently paranoid

Posted in Media, Technology and software on August 15th, 2009

A few days ago, on this increasingly infrequently-updated blog, I posted a little musing about FaceBook’s acquisition of FriendFeed (FF).
Since then, I’ve seen one or two other FF users offer similar comments on FF itself–and a whole bunch of milling around looking for alternatives after the apparently inevitable and soon-to-come shutdown of FF. Christina even wrote a response of sorts. (Hmm. Her response never showed up as a trackback on my post–is there some special rule for inter-SB trackbacks? No problem, really: The previous incarnation of this blog didn’t allow trackbacks at all.)

Expanding on my peculiar calmness

Lots of people, most of them presumably more web-savvy and, as researchers, possibly more intelligent than I am, are dead-on convinced that FB will kill off FF at the first opportunity. I’ve tried to follow the reasoning. Here’s the logic, as far as I can figure it out:
Given that: Google buys lots of services and always shuts them down.

Well, that’s certainly true. That’s why Blogger disappeared in 2004, Picasa disappeared in 2005 and, most important, YouTube was shut down in early 2007.
What’s that you say? You thought Blogger, Picasa and YouTube were still available? And, for that matter, that Postini is still operating? Or that any number of other acquisitions have been renamed or merged into other Google services in a reasonably respectful manner?
You must be mistaken. Or, just maybe, the rule for Google isn’t universally true…

And given that: What’s true for Google is true for every acquiring company.

Use Flicker lately? Of course not; Yahoo! bought it–and must have shut it down, right?

Therefore, FaceBook will shut down FriendFeed.

Based on the absolute truth of the two premises, this conclusion must be sound.

Never mind that one of FF’s founders has said it’s not likely to happen. Never mind that FB might do better on a revenue basis by adding ads to FF and leaving it as a separate service than by attempting a clumsy merger or simply shutting FF down.

Missing the point

Indeed, maybe I am missing the point. I think of FriendFeed as a tool–a good tool, for the most part, but a tool.
But I’m a “library person”–and as others have noted, library people are all over new social media like ants over honey. I’m far less social than most of the library people on FF, I believe; otherwise, I’d be back with one bunch of them on Meebo, another bunch of them on Ning, another bunch of them in (sigh) Second Life, and more…and, to be sure, big overlaps among all those bunches.

There are a lot of library folks on FaceBook as well. My brother, who’s an active FaceBook user, remarked on my 185 “friends”–far more than his count. The difference, I told him, is that I’ll generally accept any “friend” invite from a library person, and that probably accounts for three-quarters of that count. He has a lot fewer people, mostly family and actual friends, possibly a sounder approach to actually using FaceBook rather than dabbling in it as I do.

FriendFeed is, in a number of ways, a fine tool. In some other ways, it’s aggravating, but that’s true of every social medium of which I’m aware. (Yes, I use Stylish to control some of the aggravation and broadly-applied hiding to control most of the rest.) Of course, social media aren’t ideally suited to relative asocial/shy people like me anyway.
But for a fair number of people, apparently, FriendFeed is more than a tool. And if FriendFeed (or the rooms set up within FriendFeed) has become something significantly more powerful than a tool, you get a lot more upset when you think it might go away. (Or, given the number of people with no apparent insider knowledge I’m aware of who have said this flat-out, “when it absolutely is going away.”)
I can’t tell those people Don’t Panic. I certainly can’t, and wouldn’t, suggest that they’re wasting time by looking for alternatives.
I can suggest this: If you’re looking for an alternative, look for the business model.
Having a business model doesn’t assure that you won’t be purchased or otherwise go out of business.
Not having a business model substantially increase the chances that you will go out of business, one way or another.
In other words: If you love the fact that FriendFeed doesn’t have ads and doesn’t charge fees…well, think about who or what was paying the bills. (And if you come up with one pundit’s approach to digital repositories, “just plop a server down and connect it to the internet, there’s no real expense,” you deserve the results you’ll get.)

Disclaimer

As already noted, I’m a shy guy (the first letter of my Myers-Briggs never varies from “I”), and not terribly social.
My hierarchy of writing/communicating preferences is also a little odd, actually nearly unique within the library field. Setting aside the writing I do as a part-time job, here’s the hierarchy:

  1. Cites & Insights, my odd not-so-little ejournal, now in its ninth year (120th more-or-less monthly issue, 2.225 million words, 2,788 pages).
  2. The bimonthly columns I write for EContent and ONLINE print magazines.
  3. Blog posts–here and, once in a while, on what’s left of Walt, Even Randomer
  4. Notes and comments on FriendFeed, and occasional status updates on FaceBook.

If FF was closer to the top of that hierarchy, would I be more concerned? Possibly.
If I was part of a close-knit community that only communicates on FriendFeed, would I be more concerned? Possibly.
So, just to be clear, I’m not telling you (my readers, apparently still only 5% of what they used to be on the other platform) not to be concerned or take action. I’m just expanding on why I’m still calm. As always, YMMV.


Oh, and if you are outraged that I’m not outraged, here’s something to soothe your soul:

I’m old. I’m nearly 64–less than a month to go. I’m part of the Silent Generation–you know, the ones who brought you the Free Speech Movement and other non-protests (yes, I was at UC Berkeley throughout those times). I’m obviously too much of an old fart, luddite and general nincompoop to understand any of this shiny stuff.

There. Better now?


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