1. 12:01 15th Sep 2012

    Notes: 1

    Tech journalism is dumb

    I don’t need to defend Apple because, frankly, results tend to speak for themselves. And so it is that the indicators are that Apple is selling the iPhone 5 at a brisk pace. But even if it wasn’t, would that matter? Apple needs no defense — it is a corporation whose primary purpose is to make and sell products. If it makes products people want to buy, then its existence is thereby justified.

    What Apple really is (for the sake of this discussion) is a barometer by which to measure the state of technology journalism. And I’ve come to the conclusion that tech journalism is dumb. Don’t get me wrong — there are good people doing tech journalism and I know a few but sadly, the bulk of tech journalism is really a hyperbole machine that fails to inform. And being informed is my baseline expectation for what journalism is supposed to do.

    I hold as evidence this piece from the Globe and Mail where El Akkad and Marlow claim that Apple is no longer innovating. If this song sounds familiar think back a year to the release of the iPhone 4S. But instead of pointing out the lack of innovation with rehashing things said at the iPhone 4S launch in an ironic tone, let’s consider their arguments, which are as follows:

    1. Apple is big so it can no longer innovate
    2. The roll out of the iPhone 5 is timed to ensure it sells
    3. They’re suing their competitors

    I’m going to dispense with the latter two first. Argument 2 (timed roll out) merits one of those “well, duh” responses. Why wouldn’t Apple time their release for maximum sales? And that ignores the fact that Apple has a traditional back-to-school event in which they roll out products. WWDC was never good timing from the perspective of rolling out a consumer product — but it was good for the first few years to get the developer community on board. So instead of giving us a context for the timing of the launches, El Akkad and Marlow spend their time weaving what is a rather obvious and trivial thing into some kind of diabolical plotting on the part of Apple.

    Similarly they argue (essentially) that now that Apple is on top, they’re suing everyone to remain on top. What El Akkad and Marlow fail to inform us is that Apple’s always had a litigious history (sometimes being the target and other times being the bully) and that this is not a new thing. Moreover, the patent wars of the tech industry are pretty much standard practice. This is one of the reasons companies pursue patent caches so aggressively and all of the major companies have engaged in these practices. It doesn’t make them right but can we fault Apple for doing what is standard practice?

    The “Big” Apple argument

    The core of the big Apple argument is that now that Apple is part of the establishment, it can no longer take wild-haired hippie swings at the man. Consider this quote:

    That’s why Apple has shied away from the kind of risk-taking that resulted in the original iPhone. To shake up the industry with another unexpected, revolutionary product would be to mess with a larger ecosystem of products that now drives a reliable and superlatively large revenue stream.

    The problem with this is that no one yet has made a compelling case for what would constitute a revolutionary smartphone product. First off, major revolution comes in the form of product categories, not individual products. Can anyone say iPad (which they conveniently don’t mention)? Moreover, El Akkad and Marlowe’s only evidence is the lack of near-field communication technology in the new iPhone. Except that no one wants it or is ready for NFC yet.

    I’m a gold-card carrying Starbucks drinker (no really — they sent me a gold Starbucks card with my name printed on it) and one of the things that Starbucks introduced a while back was the Starbucks app that allowed you to pay for your drink by waving your phone at a scanner. Initially I was enamored with using the app (it even lets you store your favorite drink!) but my enthusiasm hit the ugly reality on the ground. Half of the stores I went to either didn’t have their scanner yet or the scanner was there but it hadn’t been installed. Of the ones that did, the baristas more often than not stared at me in abject confusion when I held my phone out to pay. Eventually I went back to paying with my gold card. So if one company in their own stores can’t pull it off fully, why would we think unready technology showing up on a phone would move the retailers of North America? Change is hard.

    And this is where tech journalism falls down hard. Instead of informing and helping us understand how technology can fit into our lives, they construct hyperbole and breathless anticipation for a restless pace of change. And while I’m not arguing against expectations of improvement, tech journalism has created an unrealistic sense of the pace of change — one that’s detrimental to our well-being. Consider what the consequence of Apple fulfilling the cry for revolution every year: Imagine your phone taking on a dramatically different shape and way of functioning year in and year out. You’d spend a lot of your time trying to master it to the point that you could easily slip your phone out of your pocket and answer the thing. And just when you’ve mastered it, it would change again.

    And that’s a problem. We’re already overloaded. Evolution is a good thing.

  2. Being out of sync

    By now, I’m sure you’ve heard that a year of Mat Honan’s digital life was wiped out. If it was pure malice, then at least it’d be understandable. But instead it was capricious, the incidental fall-out of hijacking his Twitter feed. And while Mat might be the poster child de jure of doing everything wrong as far as preserving one’s digital life goes, he’s not only alone but all the major players in the digital world (Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google) are encouraging you to do the exact same things.

    Even before the advent of cloud storage, I’ve always thought the idea behind automatically synchronizing your data to be a bad idea. The idea of a backup is that you have a fallback when something fails AND when you make a mistake. Autosync propagates the mistake in real time. With cloud storage, that autosync capability gets extended and enhanced which on one hand protects people who never intentionally backup but also exposes them to the vulnerability of making a mistake that wipes out important information everywhere. Mat’s experience is extreme but think about something that’s a little more plausible: Consider working on a word processing document and accidentally deleting a huge chunk of text. The word processor autosaves causing you to lose the local copy. Then cloud autosync kicks in and everywhere else that document was stored then also loses that chunk of text. At least without cloud sync, that other copy you might have e-mailed to yourself to work on a different computer might still have the text.

    For my photos, I keep everything on two drives separate from my computer. I copy the files from the memory card individually to each drive and I don’t copy from one drive to the other. Each drive is tied to a different computer. It’s a royal pain to maintain but it limits spillover damage at least. 

    If there’s a moral to this story, it’s store local and offline.

  3. UDFR and how to connect the points

    The Unified Digital Format Registry (UDFR) is now available from the California Digital Library. Although things seem a tad spartan at this point. I’m sure that things will spruce up over time to the point where if you have an odd format that you don’t recognize, this might just be your first stop. I have a couple of initial thoughts and a few suggestions for a future API after a quick peek of the digs.

    First off, it may be that I did my Master’s in an HCI lab but I do think projects should really enlist a UX person to review the interfaces prior to launching. There’s nothing like a clunky interface to chase me off and once off, I have a tendency of not coming back. This is most prominent in the search. I tried searching for “tif” but didn’t get anything of value and had to switch to “tiff” to find the relevant documents. Now I know that a “tif” and a “tiff” refer to the same thing but I’m sure others won’t.

    Now for the API. I’m sure some will question the need for an API but let’s face it, the digital preservation community still has a tendency to build silos and we need way more reuse. Having an API will encourage developers to build on top of UDFR as opposed to building in place of. I’m borrowing a Jobsian phrase here to suggest the value of the UDFR as a mechanism for looking backward to connect the points.

    Initially, the API could be simple — having the ability to call to the UDFR with a file extension and being able to retrieve metadata would make it easier for digital preservation management systems (DPMS) present better information. One use case would be a dashboard for a DPMS that presents all of the formats contained in a repository along with the description of the format inline in the display. In the long term it’d go a long way to risk management by presenting information like superseded, isSupersededBy, dateCreated and dateLastUpdated. Using this kind of information, DPMSs could calculate format risk in real time.

    More importantly, the UDFR needs to be fueled by community feedback. Ultimately there are few certainties within digital preservation. Ideally, we’d like algorithms that can calculate risk and obsolescence and give us accuracies to at least a couple of decimal points. Unfortunately, formats don’t degrade in the way materials do — format viability is tied directly to human behavior, not environmental conditions. But what if DPMSs had mechanisms for administrators to record local views of format risk? Yes, the risk might be a reflection of local technical knowledge, size of collection and relative importance but at least it’d provide a control point. Now imagine if a DPMS could feed that information back to the UDFR in an automated fashion. Suddenly the aggregate risk evaluations of the entire community could be used to provide an assessment of a format.

    With this aggregated information in place, an API for data mining would allow for the creation of data visualization tools that allow for the prioritization of digital preservation resources. Surfacing formats at critical risk might encourage people to write migrators and emulators. It could also quantify the degree of risk if information like number of files were feed back to the registry. It could also help repositories identify like institutions to encourage partnering and sharing of resources.

    Finally, having an API that allows people to provide links to resources for working with a given format would help flesh out the usefulness of the registry. While it’d be easy enough to have a window open with a browser pointed at the UDFR, I can see arguments for having the ability to pass that information back from a DPMS client interface. One example of this would be a tablet interface — an administrator might be interacting with their collection via the tablet (especially for remote storage offline facilities).

  4. 12:16

    Notes: 598

    Reblogged from infoneer-pulse

    Today at 12:56 CET, the European Parliament decided whether ACTA would be ultimately rejected or whether it would drag on into uncertainty. In a 478 to 39 vote, the Parliament decided to reject ACTA once and for all. This means that the deceptive treaty is now dead globally.
  5. Thinking about the Quebec student federations’ proposals

    I admit to not being sure what to make of the Quebec university student protest. I was a second year student when tuition started to rise quickly here (not Quebec obviously) and I recall the protests at the time, which were mild at best. I didn’t buy into them as a student as many students marching wore ski jackets that were worth more than a year’s tuition. The investment financially seemed paltry to the future payoff. As it stands, Quebec students’ fees will rise in five years to $3800 a year whereas it’s already at $6200 at my institution. Even still, for a four year degree the total cost is less than a car here. Is it worth it? It’s hard to say but a 2002 US Census bureau study found that the difference between a high school education and a university education over a lifetime represented about $1.3 million in earning potential. But clearly it’s not all about money and that’s certainly not where I’d judge things.

    Two of the Quebec student federations have made a counter proposal in response to the tuition hike (via the Globe and Mail) that leaves me scratching my head. Here are the points to the proposal:

    • A committee to monitor management of universities
    • A limit, to three per cent, of university expenses that are peripheral to education
    • An analysis of arrangements between businesses and universities, when it comes to patents
    • A two-year moratorium on university funding increases
    • A five-year moratorium on construction of new campuses
    • An estates-general, or roving consultations, on education
    • A freeze on tuition at 2012 level

    The first three display a woeful lack of insight into universities, particularly research universities. The fact is that in Canada student tuition represents maybe 25% of the cost of running a university. Universities choose to invest in projects not necessarily based solely on the impact to students’ education but also ability to compete with other research institutions on a global basis both for research funding and top flight researchers. Universities also return to the broader community by providing a place for access to expertise that would be difficult to obtain otherwise and access to information sources too expensive for most individuals and organizations. They act as custodians for cultural objects and provide recreational facilities that support their community. The first three points assume that universities are poorly managed organizations that are distracted from the primary task of educating. The reality is that they are complex environments with multiple competing goals with a number of checks and balances to control excesses and waste. It’s not to say they couldn’t be better managed or more waste eliminated but it’s doubtful that any savings could come close to compensating for the kind of funding the Quebec government wants to recover through increasing tuition.

    The fourth point fails to realize that the majority of the costs of a university are tied to its human capital; the researchers and instructors, lab technicians, teaching assistants and support staff. A moratorium on university funding for two years is to ask all of these people to accept wage freezes for two years. Or to see layoffs.

    The fifth point is simply a capacity issue. As participation in higher education has increased over time (and ironically participation in higher education increases with economic downturns), there has simply been a need for more and more space which necessitates the construction of more buildings and facilities. The alternative is to cap enrollment which limits participation and trumps the argument about accessibility of education.

    The sixth point I’m not sure what to make of. What would the end result of these roving consultations be?

    It seems to me that the crux of the argument falls on point seven: In the end, “we” reject all tuition hikes and in addition, we want greater say on every other aspect of higher education in Quebec. I have a suspicion these proposals are a non-starter.