Category Archives: Media

A Random Walk around Mediocrity

Lawrence M. Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia and Citizendium, has published an article which explains perfectly why I don’t usually bother contributing to Wikipedia (p. 64):

Over the long term, the quality of a given Wikipedia article will do a random walk around the highest level of quality permitted by the most persistent and aggressive people who follow an article.

[…]

The difficulty, as many disaffected Wikipedians have discovered, is that there are far too many articles persistently “managed” by aggressive individuals who will simply not let it improve in certain respects. In disputes, these persons tend to drive off more knowledgeable people, thereby keeping the quality of articles low.

Yep, that’s it. I’ve seen this phenomenon play out several times. Someone who is factually and demonstrably wrong but passionate about a Wikipedia page will edit out anything which does not correspond to his incorrect views. There have been very many times I decided to not correct Wikipedia pages because I just do not have the luxury of wasting time. If I knew the improvements I make would not be undone by someone who obviously does not know what he is talking about, I would spend time editing because the time thus spent would not be wasted. I’m just not interested in spending precious time writing thoughtfully about a subject to then have some random guy who thinks he knows better mess it up or delete it entirely. Wikipedia apologists will say that it is always possible to discuss the edit in the Talk page. True, but that does not solve the problem. It makes it worse because it means trying to convince someone who has given up on critical thinking that his opinion is incorrect. This means wasting even more time. So I’ll leave it to other people to participate in the random walk. My view on the topic can be summarized as:

Editing Wikipedia is a waste of time.

You have to take that statement in context. It means that the time I could spend on Wikipedia is better spent elsewhere. There is always something to write elsewhere or something to read or some software to improve or something else I can do with my time which will be more fruitful than engaging in a futile edit war with some ill-informed guy.

Oh! Come on!

President Obama should be impeached for coming up with the following statement:

We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that.

Reboot? Really? Coooome oooon! How can the “US image among Muslims” be “rebooted”? What about “reshape”, “ameliorate”, “change”, and so on? Those words were on vacation? They are too normal? What the hell? Or is he suggesting that he’s going to brainwash foreigners? Because that’s the closest thing I can think to a “reboot” when we’re talking about humans.

We’ve got a poet for president, no doubt!

Stanford exhibit on cigarette advertisement

Standford has put up an exhibit on cigarette advertisements. It is unbelievable what the tobacco industry fed people. I am particularly amazed at the number of vague claims made. For instance: “from the report of a well-known research organization…”, “what distinguished doctors found…”. If the institution is so “well-known”, then why not just tell us the name? Who are those distinguished doctors?

Pier 1’s Aggressive Direct Mailing Practices

Executive Summary: On November 28, 2007, I put in a request through CatalogChoice.org to stop receiving Pier 1’s catalogs. I visited Catalog Choice’s site on January 25th to find that Pier 1 refused my request. In effect, Pier 1 is refusing to collaborate with Catalog Choice. When I complained to Pier 1, the CSR told me that Pier 1 accepts requests to stop receiving their catalog only through the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) or if contacted directly but not through Catalog Choice. In my opinion, this clearly shows that Pier 1 has decided to adopt aggressive practices when it comes to advertising to potential customers.

Continue reading

The Impact of Dead-Tree Magazines on the Environment

Chris Anderson, editor at Wired, posted a blog entry claiming the following:

So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing.

I can’t help but read his conclusion and his post as a self-serving rationalization to a) deflect the criticism raised against paper-based publishing and b) keep the status quo in place. In other words, the message is “publishers (and magazines such as Wired) are not doing something environmentally detrimental by relying on print-media.” There are several flaws in his logic. I’m going to concentrate on only a few of them here:

  • Most of what he puts up is conjecture and a lot of it is based on vague scenarios. Some of the guesses are clearly overoptimistic. It is true that the USPS would not disappear if print magazines did not exist but he sees the impact of print media on the USPS as essentially non-existent: “we print and bind that paper into magazines, which are delivered mostly by the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they’re carrying our magazines or not.” Yes, but print magazines have to be sorted and carried by the mail trucks and mail workers. I can’t believe that if magazines were eliminated the USPS would use exactly the same resources they are using now.
  • The carbon footprint is not the only environmental impact of print publishing. He focuses on the carbon footprint because he wants to talk about the climactic impact but I think this is misleading. Other forms of pollution must also be taken into account. I doubt that print comes out ahead when the entire environmental impact is considered.
  • He points out that “trees take carbon out of the air”. But then he associates that benefit with the print industry only. Somehow, cutting down a tree and then planting another one, which is what the forestry companies should ideally do, is better than not cutting down a tree in the first place.
  • Even if the claim that “print publishing is carbon neutral whereas web publishing is detrimental” were true, the reality is that magazines like Wired and publishers are not currently doing one or the other. They are already doing both. What must be demonstrated is not that print publishing in the abstract is environmentally equal or better than web publishing in the abstract but that engaging in both print publishing and web publishing at the same time is environmentally equal or better than web publishing alone. To take one element of the production line as example, the comparison is not between printing presses on one hand and web servers on the other but between printing presses and web servers on one hand and only web servers on the other.

Then he takes a study of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm as confirmation that his guesses were right. But there are problems here too:

  • Anderson says:

    [The study] compared printed newspapers to people reading those newspapers on the web, and concluded that for the same time reading (30 minutes) the printed newspaper has a lower carbon footprint.

    However, he conveniently fails to mention that only in the European scenario was web reading for 30 minutes better than print. The researchers also crunched the numbers for a Swedish scenario and found that print was worse than everything else.

  • This difference between the European and Swedish scenarios brings to mind a problem with the study. There is no formal discussion of error. It seems to me that whatever estimates the researchers came up with should have had some percentage of error associated with them. There is presently no formal way to know how reliable their numbers are. They do not formally explain how the dependent variables would be affected by variations in independent variables that they used in their study. If they had over or under estimated the energy consumption of web servers by 1%, how would this affect the results? What about all the other variables that are part of this study? This is not insignificant because some models are very susceptible to show large variations in output even for small changes in the input values. In other words, it is possible that if their guesses are a off even by a little, the results could be dramatically different. The difference between the European and Swedish scenarios suggests to me that their model is indeed fragile.
  • How does this apply to the US situation? Given the difference between the European and Swedish scenarios, I’m not keen of extrapolating the results to the US scenario.
  • Because publishers are not about to turn back the clock and go print-only, the question for me is “is it environmentally detrimental for a publisher who publishes electronically to maintain its print publishing operations in addition to the electronic operations?” I think the answer is yes. Anderson’s musings do not convince me to think otherwise.

Giving away the content freely is good for business

Well, there you go! Here is proof that Digital Rights Management and attempts to control copies of intellectual property does not help business. Paulo Coelho put online “pirate” copies of his own books and that made sales soar. I’m taking Coelho at his word that there is no other explanation for the increase in sales than the fact that he book available freely on the internet. His sales went from close to nil (1000 copies a year is nothing) to being a bestseller (millions of copies a year!). And these are sales not just copies that people downloaded for free. See the writeup at Torrent Freak for the details. This real world experience completely refutes the received wisdom that to maximize profits, publishers must prevent people from freely copying intellectual works. Not only that but the question which comes to my mind is if Coelho’s sales were so poor initially and he was able to make them soar by offering free copies of his book, then what benefit did he get from working with a publisher? Even, if he did get a benefit from working with a publisher did that benefit outweigh the costs? Because, as we all know, publishers do not provide services for free.

Here we have an instance of the content creator willingly giving away his work for free, so the author is able to give us the real deal about sales figure and how making the work available freely affected them. However, in cases where the work is leaked illegally, the publisher is left to build a narrative as to what happened. Usually, that narrative is based on the bunk notion that all illegal copies are lost sales. So they figure the book has sold X copies and Y copies were downloaded illegally. Then they consider Y to be a net loss. In other words, in a world where free copies are not available the book would have sold X+Y copies but because of copying, it sold only X and so they lost Y in profit. They do not consider that perhaps the situation is more like Coelho’s. Granted, the Y copies were made illegally. But maybe if they had not been made at all, the total sales would be a number much smaller than X. So in a world where free copies are not available, the sales would not have been X+Y but would have been Z where Z is only a small fraction of X. So in the end, without the free copies they would have lost much more than Y.

The story here is that doing away with DRM and lowering the cost of access helps making the work visible. With so many movies, books, games, tv shows available out there, being visible is most important because if people do not know the work exists, they will not even consider buying it. DRM and high prices are the prime obstacles against visibility. It is high time to recognize this.

Book publishers still do not understand the digital medium!

Hubert Guillaud noted in a post titled Perplexité des éditeurs face au numérique that a study reports that book publishers still do not know how to handle the digital revolution. (The actual study is a pdf file.) I will here quote two passages of the study and offer my reaction.

By and large, professors aren’t interested in using digital textbooks. Thus, for digital content to be significant in the college marketplace, it will require “a profound change in way professors teach”. (pp. 9-10)

The opinion expressed in the first sentence is most likely correct but the conclusion does not follow. Professors are a relatively minor part of the equation here. There are much more important factors at play so let me imitate the quote above to express where I think the problem really is. “By and large, students are not interested in using digital textbooks in arcane formats, delivered in ways that impede fair use or that are overpriced. Thus, for digital content to be significant in the college marketplace, it will require a profound change in the way digital content is made available.” The fact is that for any given textbook, if there were an acceptable digital edition of the textbook beside a paper edition, many students would select the digital edition. The publisher just needs to make an acceptable digital edition available. It does not matter whether the professor likes digital editions or not. But for the vast majority of textbooks I have had to buy, the situation boils down to this:

  • In the vast majority of cases, there is just no digital edition.
  • Or if there is a digital edition, it comes with unacceptable DRM. This is no joke. I’ve seen digital books which did not allow cut and paste or printing pages or some other nonsense.
  • Or the digital edition comes in an arcane format. Again, I’m talking from experience. Some digital books available through our library at UVA are just not readable in any Unix-based OS because the company publishing them has chosen a proprietary format for which readers are only available for Windows (and perhaps Mac OS). When I’m paying for such book, I do not want to take a chance on a format which might lose all support because the one single company promoting it goes belly up.
  • Or the price is unacceptable. Users are not idiots. If a paper book costs $20, I understand that part of that price goes to the printer who prints the copy I am buying, part goes to the shipping company who moves the book to the retailer and part of it goes to the retailer. There’s no way the PDF of the same book should cost $20. In this day and age, if a publishing company cannot market their digital edition of books with substantial savings over the print version then they just do not know how to publish.

This last point about price needs elaboration. Book publishers are infected with the same mentality afflicting the entertainment industry. They think that whatever profits they have made in the past are representative of the natural order of things. High profits and their continual increase is just the way the universe is ordered. Or it is a god-given right or something just as essential. The reality however is that how profitable an industry is changes along with cultural change. Publishers have to realize that maybe, just maybe, the publishing industry is destined to become much less profitable than it once was. By trying to protect their historical profits with restrictions like DRM, they are in fact making their product much less appealing that it would otherwise be and they are hurting their bottom line. And yet, the study reports:

In terms of the use of file format, one publisher candidly declared: “As long as the DRM (digital rights management for security) is good, we go into it.” (p. 10)

In other words, that publisher does not care about whether the format benefits the customer as long as it provides restrictions that will allow the publisher to sleep at night. Is it possible to be more anti-customer? Is it?

Now, go back to the first quote about professors above and reread it. Now consider that I am one of those future professors that the publishing industry is counting on. My interest is in the free flow of information but their interest is creating obstacles to justify their existence and the fees they impose on people who want access to information. Consider also that my opinion is not a marginal one but is shared by other future professors and by young professors who have just joined academia. If publishers think that they are marketing their digital goods correctly and that problems with iron themselves out once customer mentalities change in their favor, they are headed towards oblivion.

A Letter to Robert Hawkins: On Being Famous

Robert, yesterday you shot and killed 8 people in a mall in Nebraska. The report from the Associated Press notes:

Eight people were killed and five wounded before the shooter ended the horror by taking his own life. He left behind a note that read, in part, “Now I’ll be famous.”

I don’t think you thought that through. Of course, it is possible that this little statement about becoming famous was part of an insightful essay on fame. Or it could be a joke that the AP did not understand. There is however no evidence available to me that supports the notion that it was anything else than a statement expressing the expected outcome of the actions you were about to commit. You were about to head to the mall to shoot people and you thought that action would make you famous. When you wrote, “I’ll be famous” you thought that the actual person referred to by “I”, the person writing those words, would become known by millions. You were mistaken.

Robert, I will assume that you were not so confused as to think that you would obtain any kind of lasting fame. You probably are aware that after the initial flurry of news reports dies down, you will become little more than a statistic and eventually even that statistic will cease to be of relevance to anyone. However, even if you were aiming only at being famous for a moment, you still failed. Sure, yesterday your name appeared in countless news reports, and it will continue to appear in reports for a few days. So your name is famous now. Sure, journalists sometimes include details that might be indicative of the kind of person you were. Like the fact that you were kicked out of your parent’s house or that you wrote that statement about becoming famous. So those details are famous now. But where are you in all this? Where is Robert as a person? I submit that you, Robert, are not to be found anywhere in those accounts. Can you and the life you led be really boiled down to the fragments that the press has found worthy of reporting? What kind of live have you led? Have you been given all chances to succeed but squandered it all and refused to take responsibility for it? Have you been repeatedly hurt by the people you depended on to the point of not being able to take it anymore? Was your life somewhere between those two situations? Was it something else entirely? These are some of the questions that would need answers to even begin to know in any significant way what kind of person you were. However, the fame that the media has manufactured for you is by nature incapable of providing cogent answers to those questions. This is not to say that a social scientist or a psychologist could not perform a thorough investigation of who you were but it is doubtful that the results of such investigation would ever become famous. Fame always operates on fragments of truth whereas persons and lives are complex entities that cannot be reduced to any fragment.

Robert, you certainly succeeded in killing 8 people, killing yourself and devastating the lives of numerous other people but you certainly did not become famous. And here I am writing not to you, Robert, but to the ghostly fragments of who you really were.

Yet more mediatic hysteria: computer games kill babies!

The TV is on this morning while I’m preparing to go out. A few minutes ago, CBS’ Julie Chen presented a report on the horrific case of the murder of Riley Ann Sawyers. What horrors humans are capable of truly boggles the mind. For sure the media should report about such incidents. However, those reports become problematic when for the sake of shock value (or shlock value perhaps) they stop keeping things in perspective but instead latch onto insignificant details to spice up their report. In this case, they decided to make a big deal out of the fact that the murderers, i.e. the girl’s mother and step father, met two years ago in World of Warcraft. They do not have evidence that the murderers were obsessed with the game. No evidence that they were still playing it. No evidence that they abused and killed the child because of game addiction. No, the mere fact that the murderers met two years ago on World of Warcraft automatically makes the game an important factor in the murder. I’ve known chihuahuas with more critical acumen than those so-called journalists.