Monthly Archives: May 2007

On Supporting Educators: Ken Barbalace and EnvironmentalChemistry.com

Following the publication of Ken Barbalace’s comment on a recent post that mentioned the site EnvironmentalChemistry.com that he founded and has edited for several years, I paid the site a visit.

It contains a wealth of information about chemistry and the environment, and clearly demonstrates that Mr. Barbalace has invested a great deal of work in organizing it and keeping it going it over the years.

But what struck me most was that if you read down the rightmost column then near the bottom you will see a little box that says:

Educators

This website is a great teaching resource!! Pages are printer friendly, making them easy to use as classroom handouts.

Notes about using this site in the classroom.

You know what? This is the one of the few — if not the first — times I can recall visiting a web site not specifically devoted to education and seeing a specific notice that the creator had a special interest in supporting the use of the content in the classroom, providing some instructions on the use of that content, and in so doing making clear the content was edited and reviewed to be acceptable to the classroom. For example, you find the following:

This site designed with the student in mind, so rest assured that all pages on this site are suitable for general audiences and the entire site has RSAC, ICRA and Safe Surf content ratings.

Bravo, Mr. Barbalace! Keep up the good work, work which reminds us all, including the author of this post, that while it is important to find a good business model it is even more important to find and support a good model for education.

The Wayward Word Press deemed one of “All The Blogs That’s Fit to Link”

I just noticed someone reached my blog today via the New York Times website. Wondering why this was so I revisited the article Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art. Near the bottom of the page I noticed a link Sphere: Related Blogs and Articles. Clicking on that brought up a pop-up with the message “We’re getting you the good stuff,” which was then replaced by a list, the first entry in which was a link to my blog post!

That’s right, the Grey Old Lady is sending folks to my blog site. My blog has been deemed “good stuff” by the New York Times, and so is now a member of that august group, “All The Blogs That’s Fit To Link.”

This brings to mind the famous quote of A. J. Liebling, the namesake of this blog: “Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

The web has made it possible for everyone to own their own press, in my case the present blog. For example, WordPress alone now hosts close to a million blogs, which means it runs the web printing presses for almost a million publishers.

I have linked to the NY Times many times. They have finally returned the favor and linked to me. After all, we’re both publishers.

Ken Barbalace On Steve Lambert’s Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art

Ken Barbalace, who is mentioned in my recent post Steve Lambert’s Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art, has kindly taken the time to offer his own thoughts on this matter in the form of a comment.

As I have noted before the nature of blogs is such that the author’s writings are displayed much more prominently than user comments, so I am posting his comments as a separate post here to hopefully give his words the attention they deserve:


Although the article in question quoted the gist of what I said pretty well, there were some minor errors. First I actually started blocking ads at the end of 2003, not in 2004. Also the reason I did this was my server load and bandwidth needs were about to push me to a dedicated server solution, which would have tripled my costs increasing them to around $300 a month. Blocking those who blocked my ads allowed me to avoid moving to a dedicated server.

One part of the article that I felt was a little misleading was the numbers of users that have ad-blocking software installed because these numbers did not differentiate between “software” that blocks behaviors like popups and flash objects and that software that specifically targets ads. I personally do not think popup blockers and the Firefox Extension Flashblock should be considered ad-blocking programs because they target behaviors that have been known to cause problems for users (e.g. Flash objects have frequently crashed my browser) regardless of whether the blocked behaviors are ads or actual content.

Last year I disabled my ad-blocking countermeasures as an experiment to see how it affected revenues and traffic. The reason I was willing to revisit my ad-blocking policy was because my ad revenues had significantly improved as more advertisers moved from traditional media to the Internet and there were more advertisers for my niche. This wasn’t so much a truce with those who blocked ads, but an effort to provide better service to the majority of my users who do not block ads.

As part of this change I also dumped about half of my least productive ads to reduce noise and speed up the loading of my website. Ironically what I found is that by reducing the number of ads on my site and reducing its load time for individual pages I was able to increase ad revenues as my best performing ads had less competition for attention and users tended to stick around my site longer.

I do monitor the ad-blocking situation and if I find it necessary in the future, I can quite easily turn my ad-blocking countermeasures back on. I’d really prefer to leave the countermeasures turned off, but I must be able to make a living. If I see ad-blocking become a serious concern again in the future I will take actions.

Users should make no mistake about it. Generating high quality contest costs a great deal of money and requires a great amount of effort. These are expenses that website publishers like myself MUST be compensated for. Either users can allow publishers like myself to earn compensation for our efforts via the display of advertising or users will have to pay to access said content.

Short of this, high quality independent content sites like mine will disappear and the only thing left will be amateur hobby sites, e-commerce sites and sites run by big media companies. This is not to say that websites don’t need to exercise more restraint with their advertising. As my experience has shown, sometimes less ads equals more ad-revenue and greater reader loyalty.

links for 2007-05-16

Steve Lambert’s Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art

The NY Times Business section for 13 May 2007 reports on the work of open-source artist and programmer Steve Lambert, Web Fight: Blocking Ads and Adding Art. It says in part

Steve Lambert, a conceptual artist, plans to add his own twist to one type of software that blots out commercial messages. His add-on will replace the display ads — which are usually papered over with blank windows — with curator-picked artwork from contemporary artists.

Mr. Lambert, 30, said he and Evan Harper, an artist, are not starting from scratch, but rather were modifying the program Adblock Plus. “Why reinvent the wheel when you can insert a gear and make it run backwards?” said Mr. Lambert.

Far from taking umbrage, the developer of Adblock Plus, Wladimir Palant, who lives in Norway, wrote in an e-mail response to questions, “Replacing annoying and obtrusive ads with some eye candy, turning them into their exact opposite, is a consequent continuation of what Adblock started — making the Web endurable and enjoyable.”

As open-sourcers, Mr. Lambert and Mr. Palant give away software and encourage others to tinker with it, which they believe improves the Internet by putting users’ interests over commercial ones. They have renounced their intellectual property rights to join a community where, in a sense, when everyone kicks off their shoes, stepping on someone’s toes is not an issue.

The article laters details the travails of a web advertising firm:

“There ultimately has to be a balance established where consumers recognize that if they don’t take the ads, there won’t be free content,” said Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda, a Web advertising firm. In fact, EnvironmentalChemistry.com, a news and educational site, in 2004 began blocking anyone with ad-blocking software.

Kenneth Barbalace, its owner, said that heavy traffic on the site kept exceeding his available bandwidth, costing him up to $300 more monthly. Meanwhile, 10 percent of users were blocking ads, so he bid them adieu to reduce his traffic — and expense.

“A user who comes to my site and is blocking the ads is essentially denying me the ability to pay for the content that they are getting to access for free,” said Mr. Barbalace, who lives in Portland, Me. He said he found himself in “a little arms race” with software developers: they would rewrite the program to access his site, and he would in turn rejigger it to block them.

Finally, in 2006, Mr. Barbalace called a truce. Bandwidth is much cheaper now, and his ad revenue is way up. Plus, all the extra code he wrote for the site to keep ad blockers out made the pages load slowly. “I saw the 5 or 10 percent of people using ad blockers as an annoyance, as a philosophical problem, but not as a business problem,” Mr. Barbalace said.

What a refreshing thought –a businessman adjusts to changing technology by revising his business model. The idea of “calling a truce” is even more refreshing. Would that other businesses uncertain how to deal with open-source would take the same approach.

The article ends with these final words from Mr. Lambert:

“I don’t make money from this, so if it bothers some people, that’s O.K. Art should bother some people.”

42, 45, 57, 65, 235, 1729, …

The number crunchers at Microsoft, both financial and legal, have been crunching away lately.

The financial folks reported in news good for Microsoft and bad for all the folks paying high prices for Microsoft products that Profit at Microsoft leaps 65 percent.

The legal folks have also crunched away and now claim that Microsoft has a number of patents that relate to open-source. See for example Linux Foundation Prepares For Microsoft’s Legal Action, which says in part:

Microsoft carefully avoided threatening to sue any Linux users while nevertheless maintaining in a Fortune article today that 235 of its patents are violated by various forms of open source code. Sun’s Open Office suite allegedly violated 45 of Microsoft patents, while the Linux kernel allegedly violates 42 patents. Linux graphical user interfaces violated another 65, Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith and chief of licensing Horacio Gutierrez stated in the Fortune story.

Since we open-source folks may be in a crunch I’ve done a little number crunching myself.

I find it striking that just about midway between the 45 patents claimed to relate to Open Office and the 65 patents related to Linux graphical interfaces we find the number 57, a number that has had special meaning for me ever since I first saw John Schlesinger’s wonderful film Manchurian Candidate (based on the equally fine novel of the same name by Richard Condon) back in 1962. It is a conspiracy movie at heart and I suspect I am not alone among those who saw it who remember the appearance of the number “57” described in
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as follows:

Senator Iselin is reflected off the glass covering a portrait of Lincoln – juxtaposing the ghostly-thin, anti-Communist with a stalwart American from another era, as he fixes himself a drink. As a spineless puppet, Senator Iselin complains to his wife that he can’t keep the number of Communists straight in the Defense Department: “I mean, the way you keep changing the figures on me all the time. It makes me look like some kind of a nut, like an idiot.” She holds up a newspaper and proclaims:

Well, you’re going to look like an even bigger idiot if you don’t get in there and do exactly what you’re told…Who are they writing about all over this country and what are they saying? Are they saying: ‘Are there any Communists in the Defense Department?’ No, of course not, they’re saying: ‘How many Communists are there in the Defense Department?’ So just stop talking like an expert all of a sudden and get out there and say what you’re supposed to say.

When he crumples, she apologizes for being dictatorial and brash: “Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?” As he pumps Heinz [commonly known as 57 Varieties] tomato ketchup from a bottle onto his steak, she arbitrarily decides on the exact number of card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Defense Department for his script – so it will be easy for him to remember. [This is one of the film’s most amusing jokes.] In Iselin’s speech to the Senate later that afternoon in the next cut, he accuses the Defense Department of hiring ’57’ members of the Communist Party.

Crunching some more we find that if we multiply 235 by lucky 7 we get 1645, a number only 84 places away from another one of my all-time favorite numbers, 1729, and 84 is very close to the sum of 42 and 45. Go figure.

But I can offer some comfort to those who see “red” at this attempt by Microsoft to appropriate the integers as their own. After all, there are an infinite number of them …

Making book on textbooks

The Business Section of the New York Times for 12 May 2007 reports that Thomson, the Canadian information and publishing company, said it will sell its education and educational materials businesses to two private equity funds for about $7.75 billion in cash.

The unit was put on sale a few months ago because it “did not fit the all-electronic model that is used to sell information and services to the medical, legal, scientific and financial communities.” The article says that Thomson had earlier said this was part of a strategy to realign itself toward business information. According to Thomson’s CEO, there were no concerns about the unit’s financial performance as textbooks are a high-margin product.

Thomson was also frustrated by its inability to persuade educators, even at colleges, to move away from textbooks and lectures to new ways of delivering education using the Internet. The article reports that Thomson had been successful in other markets in shifting customers to new technologies by showing that doing so would improve efficiency and increase revenues and profits. But “such issues are not concerns for most of the educational community.”

The article notes that the company was based on the publishing empire started by Roy Thomson several decades ago that at one time owned the Times of London. and that the unit was the last traditional publishing part of the business.

This is yet another example of the massive changes going on as the Internet matures. Here we have a business that began by publishing newspapers, then later moved into publishing textbooks, and now doesn’t publish anything unless it can do so it in digital form! Indeed, Thomson is trying to buy Reuters, the international news organization.

Simply put, Thomson has bet its future on digital publishing and the Internet. My bet is that they have made the right bet, and that we’ll see more changes in traditional textbook publishing, though as a consequence of the the inertia of the educational establishment this will occur at a slower pace than in other industries.

Last week I had a discussion with a colleague about the traditional textbook industry in this country. He used to work in a job where he dealt with many textbook publishers and he said he had argued the Internet was going to dramatically change their business but they didn’t seem concerned. For example, he thought that it was only a matter of time until enough teachers starting using collaborative techniques such as wikis to produce lesson plans that could be shared and so provide an alternative to some traditional curriculum materials and they would so have less reliance on textbooks.

When I mentioned this to my wife a few days later, she said she found textbooks served a valuable function, especially in providing good graphics and illustrations, but she then gave an example of a lesson that day where a student had to report on a certain kind of cell. The textbook discussed several kinds of cells, but not that particular kind, but the student was able to find some information about that kind of cell on the web in just a few minutes.

And then I realized that the same kind of componentization that has taken place in the computer hardware business over the last two decades, and that is now going on more and more in the software industry with the use of open-source implementations of standards, is also going on in the textbook industry. For example, I’m sure a great deal of effort goes into producing a comprehensive index for each new textbook. But that effort no longer adds any value, as the index we all rely on is that provided by the search engines we use every day. The textbook index has become a component but not all the players have realized it yet, especially given the years-long product cycle that is currently required to produce new textbooks.

Which means real change is just a matter of time, though it’s too early to say just what form it will take.

For example, fifteen years ago every IBM secretary had on her desk a copy of a publication called “The Airline Travel Guide.” It gave the schedules of airline flights. To book a trip you had to consult that book. It came in a small version that listed just the flights for major cities and a large version of several hundred pages that had the flights for most cities in the U.S. There were updates every few weeks. Putting out all those documents was a great business since subscribers needed those frequent updates.

Then along came the web. I stopped seeing those published travel guides years ago. I just checked the web and see that the company still survives, as OAG, but now it’s just one of scores (or more) of travel-booking businesses based on the web. And now there are meta-booking businesses. For example, a friend recently mentioned a company I hadn’t heard of before, kayak.com. Traditional web-based bookers like Expedia compare airlines and report the best deal. Kayak apparently goes one step further. It compares the bookers and reports the best deal.

Thomson has already booked its flight out of the traditional textbook industry. It will be interesting to see how soon others book the same trip …

links for 2007-05-11

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