Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

Archive forDecember, 2004 | back to home

26 December 2004

According to “Reuters”:http://www.reuters.com/audi/newsArticle.jhtml?type=technologyNews&storyID=7047174 Yahoo will release a desktop search tool of its own based on X1’s technology. Of course it may not provide X1’s full functionality but the report seems to suggest it will include its PDF searching (which so far Google’s search doesn’t do). There’s more detailed information “here”:http://insidegoogle.blogspot.com/2004/12/yahoo-announces-desktop-search.html.

Thanks to Guardian Onlineblog for the link.

23 December 2004

In an October Wired article I just got around to reading, the editor in chief argues the importance of what he (and others) have called the ‘long tail’. As we know most people want things that are popular (expressed through the so called “power law”:http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/01/13/inequality.php which indicates visits to web pages (or weblogs) tend to be concentrated on a few big sites, or through book and music shopping where most people buy blockbuster books or CDs). What the ‘long tail’ thesis suggests however is that there are still substantial numbers of people who look at, read or otherwise consume stuff outside the mainstream “bump” – and this article suggests that there is money to be made in serving them as well as more mainstream customers.

The author assembles several interesting facts including the figure that 57% of Amazon’s customers are buying books that aren’t in its ‘top 130,000 books’ (the number of books in a typical Barnes and Noble store).

As a frequent would-be consumer of goods in that ‘long tail’ I am all in favour of encouraging the kind of attention to diverse needs that the article goes on to call for but I have to note one or two flaws in the article’s argument. First of all, Amazon (and the other vendors they highlight) may have lots of ‘long tail’ customers precisely because they are known for the breadth of what they stock. If there were lots of people serving that market, the proportion of sales going to ‘long tail’ customers for any individual one may be lower.

Also, the author dismisses the impact of the free file sharing networks on music too quickly. These already provide much of the variety that conventional distribution has so far failed to offer and there is a danger that the longer commercial organizations stay out of the ‘long tail’ market the more likely consumers are to become used to and dependent on free file sharing networks. And as broadband gets more widely available, movies may increasingly ‘go free’ as well. Indeed, I am a little surprised Wired didn’t suggest this would be a good thing – or at least threaten businesses with this as an alternative future…

Interestingly this article is (perhaps at an unconscious level) an attack on one of the key planks of the arguments advanced by copyright reformers like “Lessig”:http://lessig.org/ (traditional Wired allies) who say that it is ridiculous to retain strict copyright rules for lengthy periods because the commercial lifespan of most material is limited. But if the Long Tail encourages companies to try to wring even small amounts of money out of their lower-worth properties they will have a stronger interest in sticking with existing restrictive copyright rules.

Update There is a Long Tail blog and there will be a book. Also it appears the 57% figure for Amazon (one of the more interesting ones) may be exaggerated.

My friend “Reid”:http://rae.tnir.org/ comments rightly:

The thrust of your post seems to indicate that Lessig et al are labouring to make copyright less restrictive than it is. Fine and good, but it would have been better to point out that this would just return to the way copyright was for years and years (centuries?) before companies in the US pushed to change them starting in the late 20th century.

They key issue is that the duration of a copyright is increasing at about one year per year. Needless to say, this is not good. Read more about all this at the Opposing
Copyright Extension

I agree on this point – copyright expiry dates need to be looked at afresh from scratch and a new balance needs to be struck (certainly for example the need to assert your copyright after x years in order to have it valid which was removed a little while ago in the US needs to be returned so works which have no residual commercial value would revert to the public domain faster).

19 December 2004

I had a quick look around and found grisbi (which has all its documentation in French), jgnash, Sacash, Eurobudget, and Jcash among others but many of them (other than the first two) don’t appear to have been updated in the last year or two. Gnucash is very popular I gather but it doesn’t run on Windows. Am I missing something? How is it that there doesn’t seem to be a prominent open source alternative to Quicken and Microsoft Money? Note: it would have to be easy for someone to use who hates accounting (me), has to allow me to divide my expenses into categories – preferably automatically as they are imported – and has to read and write QIF files to be able to shuffle data between my online banking and my Palm.

I would be willing to actually purchase Quicken but the company doesn’t appear to offer a demo so I can’t see whether it would work for me! I’ll take a look at Microsoft Money (which does have a demo) but I would really prefer something open source…

15 December 2004

Human: The Definitive Guide to Our Species

…is a 512 page, lavishly illustrated coffee table encyclopedia from Dorling Kindersley which attempts nothing less than a comprehensive overview of all aspects of being human:

  • Our origins
  • The body
  • The mind
  • The life cycle from birth to death
  • Society
  • Culture
  • Nations … and some speculation about
  • The Future

As you might expect with a book taking on a subject this large you can inevitably pick holes in any of the entries if you really know the subject but you can use the introductory text as a taster, and the pictures are often interesting. And it weighs about 2.5 kg so if you don’t like it you can keep it under the bed to throw at burglars…

Best of all, right in the middle of the “Culture” section (pp. 316-17) you’ll find a particularly insightful spread on the mass media. Which I wrote 😉 I don’t get a penny from any sales however.

As a side note, I am impressed that the economics of publishing have changed to the point that DK can print a hardcover book with more than 500 large pages with spot colour, photos and illustrations on every page, sell it for £18 (Amazon’s price which is admittedly 40% off retail) and still make a profit.

P.S. It’s $57.33 list price in the US but Amazon US which sells it for $36.12 can’t now ship in time for Xmas.

13 December 2004

I just added a “post about global broadband penetration”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=20 and a few days ago I posted about research on “hit counts as a predictor of the number of citations”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=14 for academic articles published online. There have also been some recent postings by other blog members on “literature reviews”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=13 and the “use of the Internet for politics in the UK”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=18. I have some postings yet to come there about search engines (you should look there for any future information on search engines – especially as one of my colleagues there is studying them for her PhD)…

P.S. If you want an easy-to-remember address for the site (which does not yet have its own ‘proper’ domain) you can get to it by typing “http://get.to/lseblog”:http://get.to/lseblog.

8 December 2004

In the tradition of departmental group weblog sites like “INCITE”:http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/incite/index.html and “ReadMe”:http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/ReadMe/, I have set up a new unofficial weblog for the “Media department”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/media@lse/Default.htm at the “London School of Economics”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/ and have managed to persuade several of my fellow PhD students to start posting there. I, too, will start posting my more academia-related musings there rather than here pour encourager les autres, though for the first little while at least I will probably post here to remind you to look there when I add something. Go along and check it out – I hope you find it useful.

P.S. As you may have noticed, I have not been posting as often on this blog. “Mark Brady”:http://home.btconnect.com/glottalstop/blog/ recently interviewed me for his PhD thesis about blogging and I began to realise as I was talking to him just how much in doubt I was about the usefulness of what I have been doing. So don’t be surprised if this blog settles down to a post-or-two a week blog instead of a daily one. But don’t blame him 😉

7 December 2004

“BoingBoing”:http://www.boingboing.net/ which appears to be one of the top 5 weblogs on the Internet (by “these”:http://www.technorati.com/live/top100.html “measures”:http://www.bloglines.com/topblogs “at least”:http://www.blogstreet.com/top100.html) has “announced”:http://www.boingboing.net/2004/12/03/boing_boing_traffic_.html it is publishing its full traffic statistics. It’s as good a way as any to get an idea of the ‘upper bound’ of popularity of weblogs as a phenomenon. Their traffic has nearly tripled in the last nine months and in November they had 1,182,402 ‘unique visitors’ (though how you would compare that to conventional media I don’t know – a visit to a weblog doesn’t seem to me equivalent in significance to the purchase of a magazine, say).

Depressingly, the top four search terms used to find their site are ‘anal’, ‘hentai’, ‘porno’ (and ‘boing’). My top five are “interesting facts”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_interesting_facts.html, “free ocr”:https://blog.org/archives/001249.html, “basic origami”:https://blog.org/archives/000176.html, “am I going down”:https://blog.org/archives/000223.html (bafflingly) and, of course, ‘blog’. There’s a lot about my own statistics that I have to admit puzzles me. For example why is it I have so many Dutch readers? My stats suggest I have half as many Dutch visitors as I have (identifiable) UK ones. And what is it you want to find when you visit? Are you getting what you want?

P.S. If Boing Boing are in the mood for more disclosure I’d be interested to know what their financial situation is like. It must take a few $$$ to pay for a connection that can transmit 469.29 GB of data a month…

4 December 2004

It’s a rather polemical TV series which makes the bold (but – to me – fairly plausible) claim that effectively ‘Al Queda’ does not exist.

The programme suggests it is largely a phantom dreamed up by politicians – particularly American neo-conservatives – (with the tacit collusion of the media and the security services) to give western politicians a new role in a cynical world.

It gives copious examples of how the alleged ‘terror cells’ in the UK and US that have been found have been painted as such on the basis of flimsy – even ludicrous – evidence. A summary of the programme with links to transcripts and audio is available at the “Disinfopedia”:http://www.disinfopedia.org/wiki.phtml?title=The_Power_of_Nightmares/.

Of course that is not to say that Islamic terrorists do not exist or have the ability to carry out atrocities – 9/11 and the Madrid bombings clearly show otherwise – but it suggests these are disparate groups of loosely allied people not some kind of sinister octopus. It is clearly not balanced either – it is making a case and I would be interested to hear the other side of the story. But it does raise the important question – how will we know when the war on terror is won?

3 December 2004

David Weinberger at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society raises an important issue in a recent discussion at Harvard using a metaphor I hadn’t thought of before:

Put aside for the moment question of what is legally ours on the Net. Instead, consider what’s ours in a less explicit and less rigorous sense. Google feels like ours (even though it legally belongs to its shareholders) while Microsoft’s new search site feels like theirs. Weblogs feel like their ours while online columns do not. The Mac feels like it’s ours while Dell computers do not. Craigslist feels like ours while newspaper classified ads and Monster.com feel like theirs. In fact, many of us feel and act as if downloaded mp3s were ours.

Is this sense of “ours” an illusion? Is it a temporary artifact that will vanish in months or years? What makes something that’s not legally ours still feel that way, on the Web or off? And does this provide a way of figuring out why many of us feel so passionately about the load of bits we call the Net?

Well of course not everyone agrees on what technology they consider ‘theirs’ – I don’t feel a big psychological difference between Google and MSN search for example. But I think David W is on to something here. The Berkman folks will likely approach this from a legal perspective (should laws be written from the POV of how people have come to feel about a given tech?) while my interest is more cultural – (what makes people invest a tech with personal significance?)

1 December 2004

It turns out Roddy Lumsden of “Vitamin Q”:http://vitaminq.blogspot.com/ is the partner of one of my fellow PhD students. His is a slightly unusual blog in that it refers neither to the author’s life nor to world events – it is a daily-updated collection of (very) miscellaneous trivia, which has now been made into a “book”:http://www.chambersharrap.co.uk/chambers/catalogue/0550101454.php (available for £7 from Amazon UK) just in time for Christmas. Although I am studying people whose sites say something about who they are and his gives little away on that score I found it v interesting to talk to him nonetheless about his relationship with his audience – he might turn out to be pilot interview #1 of my thesis…