Archive for April, 2011

When an essay falls in the forest…

Posted in Cites & Insights on April 30th, 2011

…was it really published?

It’s not quite that bad, but the response–or, rather, the lack of response–to the primary essay in the May 2011 Cites & Insights, namely “The Zeitgeist: 26 is Not the Issue,” has me puzzled. And that, along with a possible sponsorship that seems to have gone sideways, has me wondering about the future of C&I once again, in both questioning and possibly positive ways.

The numbers and the links

Normally, there’s a pretty good spike in C&I site visits the day I announce a new issue and the next day, trailing off over the following few days to its “normal” level. The “normal” level–or, rather, the daily average–for 2011 to date is 400 sessions per day, 991 pageviews per day, 28,367 PDF downloads through 4/29 (that’s 238 per day) and, excluding PDFs and the home page, about 521 article (html) views per day.

Realistically, the normal level is around 300-350 sessions per day; the first-day spikes this year have been as high as 700.

I can usually get a good sense of early interest by looking at the first week’s numbers for a new issue and its essays–but also by seeing who’s mentioned an essay in a blog post or elsewhere. I was hoping for reasonably good impact for this Zeitgeist essay–I thought the timing was good, I felt as though I’d done a really good job on it, I thought it was still pertinent.

But…the first week’s numbers were, while not pathetic, pretty poor. As for mentions elsewhere, other than one blog repeating the issue announcement, I saw none–and still see none.

I just checked the record for the first 23 days of each issue that actually appeared this year:

  • February 2011: 729 issue downloads and 506 essay views for the lead essay, “Five Years Later: Library 2.0 and Balance.” Those are great numbers–and as of today, it’s up to 1,196 issue downloads 923 essay views.
  • March 2011: 383 issue downloads and 326 essay views for the longest essay, the continuation of the Library 2.0 essay. Not great, but not terrible; there really wasn’t any first-day surge for this issue.
  • April 2011: 448 issue downloads and 168 essay views for the primary essay, Writing about Reading. 448 issue downloads for the first 23 days is still quite respectable…
  • May 2011: 319 issue downloads and 150 essay views for “The Zeitgeist…” That’s a total of 469, That’s only three-quarters as high as the next lowest figure (for Writing about Reading).

I don’t believe the sum of essay views and issue downloads passed 400 until this week. More to the point, the essay not only didn’t have any effect on the ongoing conversation regarding HarperCollins and related issues (and it is an ongoing conversation), it seems to have been wholly ignored.

(Just for fun, I looked at the comparable period for 2010. Sessions are down about 9% in 2011; pageviews are down about 7%; PDF downloads are almost identical–maybe down 2%. HTML pageviews are down significantly.)

This essay was unusual in that it was, I thought, timely. Indeed, I would have held the issue for at least another week if the essay hadn’t been timely.

Now, I know the reality here: I propose, you dispose. But I’m wondering what’s happening…

tl;dr? LWS? NAV? TOF;GA? NNW?

Five possibilities are abbreviated above. Expanding slightly:

  • tl;dr=Too long, didn’t read? Maybe. I tried to be as succinct as possible while covering nearly 100 source documents and including key text. The result is about 20,000 words. Is that actually too long for people to read? Maybe so.
  • LWS=Last Week’s Shiny? While there has continued to be some discussion of issues related to HarperCollins “26 and you’re out,” the Shiny Thing seems to have moved to, well, McMaster’s. (No, I don’t plan to do an essay related to that particular brouhaha.) Maybe I should abandon any attempts for timeliness; maybe the attention spans don’t extend beyond a week or two.
  • NAV=No Added Value? Possibly the first couple hundred people who read the Zeitgeist piece decided that I wasn’t really adding anything valuable, and thus didn’t bother to suggest that other people might want to read it. That’s certainly possible, and raises the more general question of whether I’m continuing to add value at all. Maybe this one’s a bad example…
  • TOF;GA=Tired Old Fart;Go Away. The most discouraging possibility–that most people who used to read C&I, or who might benefit from it, have concluded that I’m a tired old fart who should really go join the local Friends of the Library and stop bothering them. I really, truly don’t want to believe this one…
  • NNW=Not Native to the Web. While the essay itself was and is available as an HTML page, it’s not polished HTML, because it’s generated as a byproduct of the primary publication, a PDF produced in Word. Because the primary publication is a PDF optimized for print, links aren’t live (and generally don’t appear as links). Maybe that’s a growing issue.

Reactions and possibilities

I’m looking for reactions. I suppose the lack of any reactions, if that’s what happens, is itself a reaction of sorts.

If the general sense is tl;dr, that might influence future essays in C&I….but that conflicts with other readership numbers. Maybe it’s just too long for this particular issue?

If the general sense is LWS, well, I can live with that: In general, C&I has always been a little less than top-of-the-news current, and I’ve found that leaving time for reflection has been useful in many cases. Maybe that should be my general rule.

If the general sense is NAV–that’s harder to deal with, but I’d look at specifics.

If the general sense is TOF;GA–then that’s what I should do.

Then there’s NNW. And here there are some possibilities, if I believe it makes sense to continue C&I. I’ve been pondering a revamp that would make C&I “web-first” in some ways: That is, essays would be prepared (still using Word) using a template tuned for the web, with HTML versions posted after they’re edited–possibly (possibly?) even on a rolling basis before an issue is complete. I might even make essays or the issue as a whole available in ePub format, if future conversions work out better than in the past.

The canonical C&I would still be the PDF, I think, and it would still be designed to be space-efficient in printed form. I say “canonical” because copyfitting could result in some words and, occasionally, sections of composite essays being changed or removed to achieve the almost-exactly-to-the-end-of-an-even-number-of-pages goal.

If I do all this, which would involve some deliberate effort, I might also do one other thing to make C&I more web-native: Adopt a new CC license, dropping the “-NC” so that the only requirement is attribution.

If I had new sponsorship–or thought I could successfully adopt a “by the issue” sponsorship/ad model that would yield, say, $5,000/year in revenue–I’d be encouraged to make this package of changes and refresh C&I’s overall design in the process. I’m also wondering whether it’s worth trying a Kickstarter approach to pay for the next, say, 18 months of C&I…

I’ve never used public numbers for what I’m actually looking for in C&I sponsorship. Here’s a possible set, more modest than I’d like, but hey:

To underwrite a single issue without explicit advertising and without a sponsorship line on the home page (but with sponsorship noted on the first and last page of each issue and the closing paragraph of each HTML essay): $400. For a full year of such underwriting: $4,000.

With explicit advertising–up to a full page in the PDF issue, up to a text paragraph in the HTML: $600. For a full year, $6,000.

C&I home page sponsorship–with a credit line and possibly banner, but without actual issue underwriting: $250/month or $2,500/year

Home page and issue underwriting without display ads but with other forms of credit (the ideal): $500 for an issue, $5,000 for the year. For all of this and ads in the issues: $700 for an issue, $7,000 for the year.

All of these are negotiable. If I go the Kickstarter route (and am accepted, and achieve the goal), those who provided high donations would be the sponsors, and there would be no advertising.

Thoughts? Responses? Should I just let C&I dwindle off to nothingness…(that is, would I add more value to the field by spending my time with the Friends group bookstore–just as I’d certainly add more value to our household budget by spending that time greeting people at the local Walmart, if I was willing to do that…)

Yeah, I know: 1,396 words in this post. tl;dr. Such is life.

 

How intrusive are with-post ads?

Posted in Writing and blogging on April 29th, 2011

I’ve received some clarification on matters hinted at earlier (not the two books: those are jes’ fine), and am now looking into what I should do about Walt at Random and Cites & Insights. Those are two very different topics, to be sure.

This post is about the former. Namely, what I might do to generate a little revenue from this here blog.

I could sign up for AdWords again, and might do so, but I’m a little chary of the “only pay for actual clickthroughs” model, particularly for a blog that reaches mostly library people. So I’m also thinking about some other ad model (via Google? Dunno: haven’t investigated that yet), including models that pay for exposure and those where ads are actually fed along with individual posts in RSS feeds, not just on the sidebar here.

Example within the library field: David Lee King’s blog–not every post, but at least some of them. There are others.

So the questions are:

  • How intrusive do you find such ads? Are they likely to make you unsubscribe?
  • For that matter, how intrusive do you find banner ads and “in-stream” ads (ones that appear between or within posts on the site itself)?
  • Any other suggestions as to how to make this blog a source of income?
  • Can you suggest any reputable ad networks that might work for this blog, and that pay based on views, not just clickthroughs?

 

Books read, books written?

Posted in Libraries, Stuff on April 28th, 2011

I was originally going to include this with the previous post, but forgot…

After seeing some of the year-end posts offering summaries or lists of the books people read during 2010, I thought I’d keep track this year, which I’ve never done in the past. So I started a spreadsheet, booksread.xlsx.

I didn’t (and don’t) have an actual goal, but given that I normally check out three books at a time from the library, and that Livermore has a 28-day loan period (for most books, at least), I figured “maybe 39″ would be an informal target–that is, three books every four weeks.

In fact, so far, I’ve been reading considerably more (no, I don’t include reading my own stuff, I don’t include “book equivalent” magazines, etc.) than that target. As of yesterday, the spreadsheet shows 23 books read–really 22.2, as I abandoned one partway through. And, let’s see, we’re about 17 weeks into the year.

I suspect my reading rate will slow down somewhat now that I have book projects for the next 11 months. I could be wrong–fact is, nearly all my book reading is after dinner, anyway, and I don’t do serious work on the computer after dinner.

So: I’ll stick with 39 as an informal target. Might make it, might not. Incidentally, so far I’ve only rated three books “Meh,” one abandoned book “Fail,” and four books “So-so.” I’ve enjoyed 15 of the 23 books I’ve read so far. Not a bad track record–or maybe I’m an easy grader.

 

Projects and possibilities: An update

Posted in Books and publishing on April 28th, 2011

I occasionally post something here (or write something as a Bibs & Blather in Cites & Insights) about possible Major Projects I’ve considered, abandoned, or whatever.

As I look back, it appears that I haven’t actually done a coherent list of possible projects since February 2009; I’ve just noted individual things along the way. Given events of the past two weeks, I think an update is in order.

Or, rather, two updates.

1. Updating the February 2009 list

Here’s what I said in February 2009 as to possible projects at this point–not including my fifth choice, “treat semi-retirement more seriously,” which could have been worded “remove the semi- from semi-retired; take up golf or gardening or yelling at kids to get offa my lawn or, more realistically, get heavily involved with the local Friends of Libraries”:

Here’s the list, in alphabetic order for want of any better:

  1. Balanced Libraries, Second Edition (incorporating Library 2.0 & “Library 2.0″)
  2. Blogging for Libraries – A replacement for Public Library Blogs and Academic Library Blogs but done in a very different way.
  3. The Liblog Landscape Revisited - Some differences in approach, but largely an one- or two-year update.
  4. Library as short-run publisher – A workshop and book on no-cost print-on-demand publishing for public (and academic) libraries, for their own purposes and to aid patrons (e.g., genealogists and others).

And here’s what’s happened with each of the four:

  1. Nothing so far. I did a major follow-up to the original essay. So far, combining those two and other essays into a book doesn’t seem like either a great or a terrible idea. Maybe closer to “terrible.”
  2. Didn’t happen, not going to happen, no way.
  3. Sigh. I did this. Twice. The first one sold badly (21 copies to date, as compared to 69 for the original). The second one barely sold at all (it’s still stuck at two-digit total sales, but hope springs…well, maybe not eternal). I am not doing a 2011 version, even though the semi-comprehensive nature of the 2010 version almost calls out for continuing study. Without upfront funding, that’s just not gonna happen. See #4 and the rest of this post, along with people directly telling me that not only wouldn’t they pay for the book but they really didn’t give a damn about the whole thing, to understand why. I’m a slow learner, obviously, but not wholly incorrigible.
  4. Here, I got somewhat positive feedback–but ran up against issues with workshops and bigger issues with trying to do it as a self-published work. I concluded that it only made sense if it could get a wide library audience, which meant having a reputable library publisher behind it, and that maybe it was a little premature. Well, I now have a highly reputable library publisher behind it, and I no longer think it’s premature. Which leads us to…

2. Where things stand as of now

  • I’m starting serious work on a new book project based on idea #4, not necessarily for libraries as publishers (although that might make sense in some cases) but for libraries as facilitators for community members. I believe it’s going to be a great, relatively brief, book (that could lead to workshops if there’s demand) that will be immediately useful for nearly every public library and possibly many academic libraries. It will be published by a major library publisher with a good track record for reasonable pricing, good publicity and good editorial quality–but it will also be an example of what it espouses (walking the talk), as the typography and layout will be done by me, using Word2010 and a .dotx template that will be readily available for use by others. This project will get the bulk of my extra time from now through early fall; not sure when it will appear, but hoping for the first half of 2012. I’m excited about this one: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, I think the conditions are better now than ever before, and those I’ve talked to–including my wife, not always enthusiastic about these projects–is reasonably enthusiastic about the possibilities.
  • While #2 above is dead in the water, I will be working on a somewhat related project, primarily this fall and next winter: the actual experience of (primarily public) libraries in social networks (primarily Twitter and Facebook), based on a combination of broad research, requests for feedback and comments from libraries, and other resources. I believe this one will also be immediately useful to most public and many academic libraries.  (No, it will not be 170 pages of tables and charts, although there will be some tables.) It will be published by another leading library publisher with a good track record for editorial quality, good publicity and books that aren’t wildly expensive. No idea of the schedule; guessing latter half of 2012.
  • I’m pondering some possible major changes to the way Cites & Insights operates, although I’ve made no firm decisions yet. Some changes might be visible as early as this summer.
  • There’s one new thing that seems likely to come to pass, but I’m not willing to talk about it until it’s a done deal. If it happens, chances are you’ll see something late this summer or early this fall…

I suspect that I’ll start fomenting new “big project” ideas around the time I’m polishing the submission draft for the second book noted above; as long as I can find at least one good topic a year that meets three tests, I’ll keep looking for and working on them. The three tests:

  1. It’s something I believe I can do well that either hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been done nearly as well as I believe I can do it.
  2. It’s something I believe will add value to the library community.
  3. It’s something a library publisher (or, I suppose, some other “traditional” publisher) will put under contract. After my experiences with self-publishing, I’m becoming a great believer in “Show me the contract!” as a way of testing likely marketability…and of letting the experts do the marketing (and help polish my books through editing).

In case it isn’t obvious from all this: I may be discouraged about a few situations and apparent failures, but I’m not giving up–and the two book contracts surely help keep me upbeat and moving forward!

Aggressive spam

Posted in Writing and blogging on April 27th, 2011

Hey, if you’re going to spam somebody’s blog, why not be aggressive about it?

Here’s one that actually got past my filters–but not the human filter:

The subsequent time I read a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I do know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you can repair for those who werent too busy searching for attention.

I see the logic behind this kind of attack: If I believe in open discussion, I’m certainly not going to suppress a comment just because it’s being critical of my post, right?

Right. Unless the comment:

  • is semi-literate (and that wouldn’t knock it out)
  • is attached to a post for which it really makes no sense
  • oh, lookie there, has a pseudo-commercial site as a link to the “author’s” name…

Actually, I’ve gotten lots worse–but those are trapped by Spam Karma 2, and it’s really difficult to transcribe the comments into a new post (you can’t cut-and-paste from the review panel).

Expect another post soon about the status of various projects…if I’m not too busy working on them.

The Flying Web: Bandwidth of an Airplane, Take 3

Posted in Stuff on April 25th, 2011

A remarkably important (or remarkably silly, as the case may be) discussion has been going on for the past five years, beginning with a July 2006 post at Disruptive Library Technology Jester, continuing with comments on that post over three years, then recommencing with a June 2010 post at DLTJ and another June 2010 post right here.

All of these having to do with contemporary updates for the old internet adage, “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes.”

I pondered the bandwidth of a 747 full of Blu-ray Discs (yes, Blu-ray Discs were around in 2006). Peter did some calculations, assuming the bulk of jewel boxes as the limiting factor. Over the years, this was refined and another person offered an Airbus A380 as an alternative factor. In every case, we concluded that the effective bandwidth for transcontinental data transmission of very large datasets was much higher on a 747 than on any known network–although latency was, and is, a bitch. (Still: If you want to ship 50 Terabytes of data from one place to another…well, you know, that’s only ten spindles of Blu-ray discs or, these days, 17 internal hard disks weighing about 30 pounds.)

As of last June, I concluded that weight was always the limiting factor–a 747 cargo freighter actually full of either hard disks or Blu-ray spindles couldn’t take off, as it would be way over its cargo weight limit–and that Blu-ray spindles won the actual bandwidth war, because 400 Blu-ray discs on four spindles (50 GB each, or 20 TB for the lot) weigh less than 10 two-terabyte hard disks (using Western Digital Black Caviar specs). In either case, the bandwidth was at least three orders of magnitude greater than the highest known network transmission bandwidth (160 Terabits/second as compared to 110 Gigabits/second).

Hard disks take the lead

Ah, but now the standard for everyday hard disks–ones produced by the millions at low, low prices by name-brand companies (specifically Western Digital) is 3 terabytes, not two terabytes.

And the Western Digital Green Caviar 3TB drive is a little lighter than the Black Caviar 2TB drive–0.73 Kg (1.61lb.) rather than 0.75 Kg (1.66lb.)

Net result: Using the full carrying capacity of a 748 freight configuration, which in this case is considerably less than 10% of its actual cargo volume, you could load a 747 with something like 169,390 WD 3TB drives, each holding 3TB or 24Tb (Terabits).

The net result: The effective bandwidth from New York to LA comes out to just over 250 Terabits/second–a little higher than the 232 Tb/s you can get with dual-layer Blu-Ray discs in 100-disc spindles. Either figure, to be sure, is more than 2,000 times the best internet bandwidth.

So what?

Mostly, this is for amusement. “Of course,” latency makes this meaningless–that is, the fact that the first byte transmitted arrives 16,200 seconds after it’s sent.

But is that always the determining factor? Let’s take a more modest real-world possibility:

You want to send me 60 historic movies at Blu-ray data quality–that is, 3TB worth of movies. You can send them to me over my DSL at an average 1.5Mb/s (that’s bits, not bytes). Which would you choose?

Hmm. 1.5MB/s = 187.5 kilobytes/second or 5.333 seconds per megabyte. Three TB = three million megabytes (this is disc capacity, so 1,000KB/MB, not the 1,024 you’d expect for RAM). Assuming no interruptions, entirely smooth performance, and nothing else using that line, it will take (calculate calculate) 185 days to send me the movies over the internet. Or, given that the hard disk weighs 1.6 pounds and fits in a 6x4x1.1″ package, you could ship it to me using USPS Flat Rate Small Box pricing, for $5.20; it would reach me two days later.

Sure, I could get faster broadband (no FIOS here), but I don’t think Comcast will let me stream three terabytes of data at anything like, say, 5MB/s guaranteed rate with no capacity caps or surcharges. If they did, well, that changes the picture: It would take a little less than two months (55.5 days) to send me the movies. Of course, if Comcast imposed a $5/GB surcharge once I passed the first 50GB, well…never mind that.

So, yes, there are real-world circumstances in which the net is the slow way.

Update on real-world example: If, say, the MPAA wanted to send 60 screeners to Oscar judges (thus, 3TB of data at Blu-ray resolution), they’d really use an external 3TB drive, costing a little more for postage and the drive…but still less than $170 total and 2-day shipping.

Liblog Profiles 33-36

Posted in Liblogs on April 23rd, 2011

Profiles 33-36

Aaron the Librarian

By Aaron Dobbs. US. WordPress. Began June 2006, lasted 48 months (so far, through May 2010). Group 1

Overall Posts

168

Per Month

3.5

Quintile

3

Quintile

3

2007

2008

2009

2010

Posts

14

1

4

3

Quintile

4

5

4

5

Words

2,497

157

843

125

Quintile

4

5

5

5

Post length

178

157

211

42

Quintile

4

4

4

5

Comments

5

0

1

1

Quintile
Conv. Intensity

0.36

0

0.25

0.33

Quintile

4

5

4

4

Abby the Librarian

By Abby Johnson. US. Blogger. Began October 2007, lasted 32 months (so far). Group 3 (GPR 0).

Overall Posts

870

Per Month

27.19

Quintile

1

Quintile

1

2008

2009

2010

Posts

60

77

102

Quintile

1

1

1

About You: Resources for Everyday Life

US. Blogger. Began January 2009, lasted 17 months. (Defunct and removed at this point.) Group 1.

Overall Posts

176

Per Month

10.35

Quintile

3

Quintile

2

2009

2010

Posts

64

10

Quintile

1

3

Words

2,968

845

Quintile

3

4

Post length

46

85

Quintile

5

5

Comments

0

0

Quintile

5

5

Ab’s Blog

“e-resources management, technology, and anything else that strikes my fancy.” By Abigail Bordeaux. US. WordPress. Began January 2005, lasted 60 months (so far). Group 3 (GPR 0 and no posts in March-May 2010.) This blog had activity as recent as July 2010, but tends to be missing in March-May periods.

Overall Posts

146

Per Month

2.43

Quintile

3

Quintile

4

2007

2008

2009

2010

Posts

12

0

0

0

Quintile

4

5

5

5


Sometimes it’s the little things…

Posted in Technology and software on April 21st, 2011

I’m holding off on a downbeat post that I’ve been thinking about for a week or more, because, you know, I’m really an upbeat kind of guy, and…well, anyway. Instead, here are three reasons, all of them small in some ways, why I’m pretty happy with Windows7 and Office2010:

  1. I have Windows AutoUpdate on–I can’t imagine not having it on, frankly. In Vista and, I believe, XP, that meant that, once an update had hit my machine, any attempt to do a temporary partial shutdown (sleep or hibernate) would turn into a forced shutdown to allow the updates to be installed. You got the exclamation-point warning, but still… In Windows7, you still get the exclamation-point warning, but you can still go to Sleep or Hibernate without the update-and-shutdown taking precedence. There are times when I really want to leave some applications in “loaded” state while the machine’s on standby or powered down; this is a really nice, perhaps small, change.
  2. This becomes much more relevant if my proposed project on (mostly public) libraries as publishers/facilitators of low-cost, short-run publishing becomes a reality: Office2010 includes direct PDF support on Windows7 (that is, you don’t need to buy Acrobat or a competitor), but my sense was that it wouldn’t produce Lulu-compatible output because Arial wouldn’t get embedded (and some document templates will still have apparent Arial text even if there’s none that you can find–as a footnote separator, for example). BUT: I’ve just noticed that the PDF options include an ISO 9005-1-compliant option, that is, PDF/A (the standard, archival, PDF option. PDF/A embeds all typefaces in a document. It should be Lulu-compatible, albeit slightly larger. So, unless you need special capabilities (combining multiple PDFs, restricting accessibility, etc.), this should mean that Office2010 by itself is all you need.
  3. Windows7 made a generally-sensible change to the taskbar, combining multiple instances and windows of a given program into a single button that yields multiple views when you mouseover–good for many people in that it cleans up the taskbar. But for some people, including my wife (who, for certain projects, will have two or three Notepad windows and an IE window or two open) and, actually, me (frequently two Word windows), it’s a damn nuisance. And, as it turns out, an entirely optional one: Right-click on the taskbar, choose Properties, and on the Taskbar tab there’s “Toolbar buttons:” and a pull-down that defaults to the snazzy, clean & lean “Always combine, hide labels” option. Change that to “Never combine” and you’re back to multiple Word or Notepad or whatever elements that self-identify.

So there’s my upbeat Friday post.

Box Office Gold, Disc 2

Posted in Movies and TV on April 19th, 2011

Shaker Run, 1986, color. Bruce Morrison (dir.), Cliff Robertson, Leif Garrett, Lisa Harrow, Shane Briant, Peter Rowell, Peter Hayden. 1:31 [1:29]

A research scientist whose project has accidentally developed a lethal bioweapon (it suppresses the immune system) finds that it’s about to be turned over to the military—so to save mankind from that awful fate, she and her lover (also on the project) decide to steal the stuff and deliver it to…the CIA? Really? So that sterling institution can see to it that an antidote is developed. Oh, and the evil country whose military she’s trying to avoid: New Zealand.

Yep. That’s what we have: the New Zealand military vs. the CIA—except that it’s mostly stunt car driving with Cliff Robertson as a former race car driver turned stunt-car driver, who takes on the delivery job without knowing what he’s transporting (but he’s bad broke and she’s offering $3,000). Garrett plays Robertson’s mechanic (and son of the crew chief Robertson’s character accidentally killed at Daytona). The military presence includes a sinister head and an associate who’s pure assassin. All filmed on location and with decent production values, on roads covering a good portion of New Zealand’s South Island—lots of scenery. Lots of shooting, explosions, cars going over cliffs, and mostly lots of stunt car driving. The print’s pretty decent for VHS quality, and the movie moves right along. Even if…the CIA? Really? (When Robertson, as an American stunt driver, hears what she’s doing, he comments “Lady, you are really naïve.” Ya’ think?) I have no idea how MCE could get rights to a 1986 color movie cheap enough to include in a megapack, but there you go. All in all, a minor effort worth $1.25.

Against All Hope, 1982, color. Edward T. McDougal (dir.), Michael Madsen, Maureen McCarthy, Cecil Moe. 1:29.

Awful, awful, awful: A badly-done film that’s nothing more than a 90-minute sermon for one narrow brand of Christianity as being the five-second cure (and the only cure) for whatever ails you.

It’s all about a falling-down drunk and how he got that way, told in flashbacks as he’s sitting in a 4a.m. chat with a minister he’d never met, trying to decide whether to kill himself. It’s a mildly sad story, but mostly boils down to a man with no apparent self-esteem who lives for his drinks and has somehow stayed married. When he decides he’s in trouble, we get a display of how every other helping profession is worthless: A doctor blows cigarette smoke in his face while telling him there are no medical problems, a neurologist dismisses his issues, a psychiatrist wants to know whether he hates his mother or his father and then refers him to a minister from the Church of Good Times (or something like that), whose only advice is that the couple should come to Wednesday Night Bingo or Friday Night Dances at the church—and, of course, not one of these people asks anything about him being a drunk. No AA suggestions or anything that might actually help.

Add in a barroom scene in which everybody in the bar gathers around him to force him to take a drink after he’s been on the wagon for a couple of months, a diner with a remarkably vicious waitress and even nastier other customer and the fact that not one character in the whole film, including the long-suffering wife and the protagonist, seems to be more than a convenient cliché. And even after the lead is miraculously saved (after a 30-second prayer, he walks out of the minister’s house, says everything suddenly looks beautiful, and of course everything goes great after that), he’s upset because his wife (who’s always been religious, even taught Sunday School for 11 years, but doesn’t much cotton to his particular fundamentalist group) “still isn’t a Christian yet.”

The lead character’s name—Cecil Moe–is also the name of the cowriter and executive producer (who also plays a different role, the minister who saves Moe). It’s really bad propaganda, of a sort that strikes me as wholly useless—I mean, would anyone outside the “you’re all doomed, but if you just Say the Magic Phrase, you’re instantly saved” camp be convinced by anything here? Madsen’s first movie; based on his stellar performance, it’s a miracle he was ever in a second one—but this one must have been seen by, what, 50 people including the cast? (If you read the IMDB reviews, note that the only semi-favorable ones are from those who think the “Christian” message overrides everything else.) I’d give it a flat $0, but as an example of really bad moviemaking that’s also remarkably awful propaganda it’s a weak $0.25.

Kangaroo, 1952, color. Lewis Milestone (dir.), Maureen O’Hara, Peter Lawford, Finlay Currie, Richard Boone, Chips Rafferty. 1:24.

An old guy, Michael McGuire, shows up at a cheap sailor’s rest (six cents a night for bedding and a bunk) drunk and with booze to share—and, as he’s singing and then becoming maudlin, Richard Connor (a young Peter Lawford—29 at the time) asks about it and finds that he’s mourning the long-lost son that he put in an orphanage as a child, from whence the son fled. Connor then leaves the sailor’s rest, tries to rob a gambler, John W. Gamble (Richard Boone), winds up robbing the proprietor of the gambling establishment with Gamble (a robbery during which Gamble shoots the proprietor)…and that’s just the start. (Interesting gambling hall: Most of the action’s betting on whether a person tossing two coins in the air will have two heads or two tails land, with one of each being a non-result.)

The primary plot: McGuire’s got a 10,000-square-mile cattle station in South Australia; the two, after taking him back to his ship (dead drunk), connive to go to the station…with the hope that they can convince him that Connor’s his long-lost son. Turns out he also has a beautiful daughter (Maureen O’Hara), and they’re just trying to hang on given a three-year drought that’s nearly wiped out the nearby town and threatens to wipe out their herds.

Most of the movie’s a combination of Australian scenery, driving cattle, aboriginal rites and a little action here and there. The ending’s not terribly important (indeed, other than a break in the drought, the ending’s not even very clear). It’s fair to say that the long con doesn’t work, partly because Lawford’s conscience gets the better of him.

Fine cast, generally well played, maybe a little heavy on the Australian exotica (supposedly the first Hollywood flick and first Technicolor movie shot entirely in Australia). While the print’s not terrible, it’s not as good as you might want for a movie this heavy on scenery. All in all, though, it’s entertaining enough. If the print was better, this might get more, but I’ll give it $1.25.

A Hazard of Hearts, 1987, color (made for TV). John Hough (dir.), Diana Rigg, Edward Fox, Helena Bonham Carter, Fiona Fullerton, Christopher Plummer, Steward Granger, Neil Dickson, Anna Massey, Marcus Gilbert. 1:30.

Romance-novel fans may recognize that as a Barbara Cartland title, and snobs may say “Oh, please, it’s a cheap romance novel.” Maybe, but it’s well-done and a distinct pleasure, some highly implausible plot issues be damned.

The basic plot: A British nobleman (Christopher Plummer) is an inveterate gambler and loses not only his entire fortune but his estate and his daughter’s promised hand in marriage (which brings with it an £80,000 inheritance) to a villainous lord who his daughter detests. Another lord takes on the villain, winning back the estate and daughter…while the nobleman shoots himself. Then, the other lord (an oddly distant sort, but handsome) discovers the youth of the daughter (Helena Bonham Carter, 21 at the time) and decides he can’t possibly wed one so young—and decides to sell the estate and send her to live with his mother at his estate. His mother, played by Diana Rigg, is a proper scoundrel—another inveterate gambler who runs her own gambling operation and also a smuggling franchise, and who regard the girl as an annoyance to be dealt with.

That’s just the start of a hearty plot involving hidden doors, staircases and even apparently-dead fathers, subterfuge, betrayal, and eventually both a pistol duel and a swordfight. Virtue triumphs—how could it not? And, frankly, it all works—because the actors are first-rate. Also, this is an unusually good print for a Mill Creek movie, nearly VHS quality: It was a pleasure to watch on the big screen. Yes, the plot’s silly, but the staging and acting are both fine. I’ll give it $1.75.

Plonk and circumstance

Posted in Food, Stuff on April 18th, 2011

Lifehacker has a story entitled “Why It May Make Sense To Reach for the Cheaper Wine.” It references a BBC report based on blind taste tests among 587 people at the Edinburgh Science Festival, tests indicating that people were only about 50% successful in deciding which of two wines was more expensive, based only on the taste.

The BBC report has a misleading title–“Cheap wine ‘good as pricier bottles’ – blind taste test”–and a highly questionable concluding paragraph:

Lead researcher psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman said: “These are remarkable results. People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship the message is clear – the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts.”

Without seeing the full study and what wines were involved, it’s impossible to provide a full critique, but right off the bat a couple of things should be obvious:

  • As stated, the test was not whether people could tell a difference in the taste of two wines. It was whether they could accurately say which one cost more. Those are entirely different things.
  • On the other hand, this paragraph is almost certainly correct–but also almost certainly blindingly obvious: “University of Hertfordshire researchers say their findings indicate many people may just be paying for a label.” Wow! Some people buy more expensive X because of the label, not the quality (or think that because X2 costs more than X1, it must be better). I can think of dozens, probably hundreds of values for X where that’s true; that it might be true of wine as well should come as no surprise.

There’s another related story at StackExchange, and I link to it not so much for the text as for the comments, which are relatively few and in some cases fairly interesting (even if the first one is flatly wrong–some of France’s most expensive and best-known wines are blends, as a fast response points out).  Come to think of it, the third and fourth comments on the Lifehacker story–as I write this–are also worthwhile, if somewhat less formal. (Also the fifth and sixth if you expand the comments.)

I labeled the story and study “silly” in a Friendfeed thread. I did so because, at least as reported, the study doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Why? Because we should know this, and it’s true not only of wines but of many, perhaps most, products that engage subjective evaluation. It boils down to this:

Different people have different tastes and different sensitivity levels–and for many people, subjective response is based on more than a narrow objective reality.

I believe that’s exactly as it should be. I’m occasionally offended by reviews where I believe the reviewer is overstating objective differences because of subjective preferences that may have nothing to do with actual performance–thus, my occasional My Back Pages comments on some high-end stereo reviews.

Which is to say: There’s nothing wrong at all with a wealthy person paying $25,000 for an amplifier with badly substandard frequency response and low wattage because they like the way it looks, or they love the warm glow of tubes, or they like the maker, or they just like having a rare amplifier. I’m mildly offended by reviewers asserting that the $25,000 amplifier is Clearly Superior to a $500 amplifier, and worth every cent, when it appears from the article that they’re as much influenced by their friendship with the manufacturer as by the actual sound. Understanding that blind testing of audio products, as with many other products, is inherently flawed, I’ve always wondered what a “Radio Shack test” would yield–that is, a testing regimen in which the reviewer can take as much time as he or she wants, but the device being tested is encased in a cabinet that makes it indistinguishable from the cheapest device sold by Radio Shack.

The general case: Sensitivity and acuity

On one hand, it should be obvious that most of us aren’t terribly sensitive to differences in most areas of daily life, and that’s probably as it should be.

Would most beer drinkers–or, even worse, most non-beer drinkers–properly guess which was more expensive (or which was “better”) if served Brew 102 (if it still exists) or Fisher and, alongside, the most expensive beer of similar style in the world?

I suspect most people who don’t drink high-end Scotch wouldn’t be better than random chance at determining whether a $10 Scotch or a $250 Scotch was “better” or “more expensive” or even different–I don’t think I would be able to make those distinctions, and if I did, I might well prefer the simpler character of the cheap Scotch. (This may not be a fair comparison–it appears that the price differentials in the wine test were as small as 2:1, not 10:1…or in the case of sparkling wine, only 1.7:1. I suspect I couldn’t reliably tell you which of two sparkling wines, one costing $29 and one costing $46, the dollar equivalent of the stated pounds prices, was the more expensive–that’s a price range in which I’d expect the wines to both be excellent with subtle differences. Given that our favorite sparkling wine, Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, is in the $24-$27 range, I can comfortably state that I wouldn’t expect to reliably tell whether a $46 blanc de blanc was better or more expensive.)

It’s not just drink. Can you really tell me that most people could tell whether a pair of shoes cost $75 or $150 based on how comfortable or well-constructed they are? (Or, let’s say, a good pair of Rockports vs. a pair of designer shoes costing four times as much.) That most people could tell whether a painting is worth $10 or $200 based on nothing more than the image? That most people hearing a stereo costing $2,000 and one costing $1,000 can tell which is which or which costs more? (Especially if the only difference between the two is in either a digital frontend or the amplification…tell me that the average listener can tell which of a $12,000 CD player or a $200 CD player is more expensive, given only audible clues!)

The specific case: Price in wine is a complex proposition

That’s true in many other fields as well. If you think there’s a direct ratio between cost and either quality or “driving experience” in automobiles, I’d beg to differ. A VW Golf is a 50% better car than a Honda Fit? A BMW 750LI will give you three times the driving pleasure of an Acura TSX and 4.5 times the pleasure of a Hyundai Sonata? Really?

With wine–as with many other products–the price involves a whole bunch of things, all of which can affect worth for some consumers: Rarity (size of producer, size of production), complexity, time spent in production, deliberate marketing decisions…

There are lots of California red wines priced at $75/bottle and up because the tiny little wineries that make them have based their business plans on such high prices. I’m not likely to try any of them, and not worry about what I’m missing. In many cases, those pricey wines are also very high alcohol because that’s what Robert Parker and some other wine critics seem to like; if I was to taste one of these 14.5-15% $75 wines vs. a decently-made $12 wine with 13.5% alcohol, I’d probably prefer the “cheap” wine–and might even assume it was more expensive.

There’s a reason Two Buck Chuck is so popular. It’s not terrible wine. It’s simple wine without lots of pretension. That makes it preferable to more expensive wines for many buyers. I don’t buy it these days, but I don’t disdain it.

I do buy $4 Chardonnays at Trader Joe’s, and $5 Chardonnays and $6 Chardonnays. In general, I find them to be better values and better wines than quite a few $8-$12 name-brand Chardonnays, partly because they’re usually 12.5%-13% alcohol, partly because they’re well-made with no marketing budget. But we also picked up a $26 Chardonnay at a Livermore winery; it’s probably worth the money–but I’d rarely want to drink a bottle that expensive. I’ve certainly had $12 and $15 wines that simply didn’t taste as good as $4 wines–and I’ve tasted $30 and $40 wines that I wouldn’t serve on a bet.

There’s no accounting for tastes–and there’s very little accounting for taste sensitivity. That makes most studies of these sorts not terribly useful, except for those who want to convince themselves that there really aren’t any differences between different products. Sometimes, even that’s true–but not generally.

You love your high-end Cognac? Good for you. I simply wouldn’t appreciate the difference between it and E&J. I might or might not be able to tell the difference but I wouldn’t appreciate it. So, for me, it’s not worth the substantial extra cost. That’s partly because cognac and brandy don’t interest me (same with most booze, actually). It’s also partly because it’s not a sensitivity I’ve chosen to cultivate, and might not have even if I did so. Doesn’t mean there are no differences.

Oh, and as to cars? There’s a reason I’ve never owned anything but Honda Civics, and if that changes, it would change toward a Fit, not a Mercedes or Lamborghini…even if I won SuperLotto.

 

 

 

 


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