this space intentionally left blank

January 22, 2008

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

The Primer

The problem with me reviewing the Kindle is that I'm the central section of the target audience's venn diagram. I love ebooks, I read constantly, and I've got the disposable income to spring for a $400 device in the hopes that it will, eventually, prove economical. What I'm trying to say is: look, I really dig the thing, but that doesn't mean it's made for you. That said, I think the Gamers With Jobs review is excellent, and basically spot-on.

Jeff Bezos says he wants it to disappear while you're reading, and for the most part it works as advertised. After half an hour, you get the timing of the page turn down so that it blanks the screen while your eyes are traveling back up to the top of the page, and you stop noticing the delay. The reading quality of the display is otherwise very, very good, which you'd expect from e-ink. The "Whispernet" (which I guess sounds better than saying "Sprint cell phone modem," perhaps because most people hate cell phone companies) is also fast and effective, but it does take a big chunk out of the batteries, particularly when first activated. I leave it off probably 99% of the time.

A lot of reviews have been critical of the Kindle for the placement of the page-turning buttons. I think they're overreacting. The main time when I see them hit accidentally is when I hand the device to someone else--they're not expecting the borders to be sensitive. But when I pick it up myself, there are plenty of places to grab it, especially since I lock the buttons (by hitting the ALT and Text Size keys on opposite ends of the keyboard) before I put it down. When holding it, the buttons are actually placed logically: your left hand rests with the thumb able to reach the next page easily, and the previous page with a little bit of a stretch. You can also just hold it with the left hand, and use the right hand for additional support and page turns. Part of the confusion may come from people who expect to be able to read one-handed all the time, which you can do easily left-handed but not so easily with the right. But at the same time, most people do not read books with just one hand--they use two, one to prop it open and one to read pages. The Kindle just mimics this.

As far as the industrial design goes, it does look better in person than it does in a picture. It's still not going to win any design awards, but it is surprisingly thin and light. It's solidly-built and passes the "creak test," so it doesn't look as expensive as it maybe should, but it doesn't feel cheap either. Its case is also better than you'd expect--there's a little tab that slots into a corresponding slot on the Kindle's battery cover and keeps it from sliding out. The LCD roller is a very clever solution to the refresh rate problem, and once you point it out to people they seem to get the hang of it immediately. Some people have claimed that it needs a touch screen. These people are wrong.

The Internet access is unfinished, to say the least. The built-in browser is a variant of Netfront, which long-time PocketPC users will recognize as passable, but not nearly as good as Opera's native offering. It handles Wikipedia just fine, and most blogs load without much trouble. Pages with more formatting may need to be dropped into the single-column rendering mode, which disables Javascript and extra formatting in favor of a simplified view (it's also often shorter). What this mostly does, as far as I'm concerned, is point out just how bad mobile site design is. In any case, web browsing isn't the reason you should buy it, but it doesn't hurt to have it around. I know that Amazon's trying to monetize RSS, but a reader would be a much better addition (as it is to most mobile devices).

I've finished five downloaded books on the Kindle so far, and the experience of buying them and reading them has been smooth. Because the wireless can be hard on the battery, I don't find myself browsing Amazon from the Kindle much, but if I want something directly it's easy to just type it in with the keyboard and grab it. That's assuming that they've got it, of course--the selection is not quite as comprehensive as I'd like it to be yet. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, for example, is exactly the kind of disposable pulp that I'd like to read on Kindle, but the second book (and only the second book) is missing, so I'd have to go buy the paper version before I can continue reading them. All of Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books are available, but I still can't buy any Iain Banks. On the other hand, they've got a good choice of Murakami titles. Best-sellers and new books are well-represented, but older titles are less reliable--I went looking for M.T. Anderson's Feed based on a recommendation from a while back, and it's not up yet. And the periodical selection seems weak to me, particularly in magazines: no New Yorker or Harpers?

That's not to say that I can't find stuff to read. I've been using the free samples as a shopping list--if I see something on Amazon and it's available on Kindle, I click the "send sample" button, and it gets downloaded the next time I turn the wireless on. I probably sent 15 titles the other night, just browsing through the virtual stacks. And while I hope it gets more coverage, I'm not unhappy with the selection--even just buying off the bestsellers and the new hardbacks, there's lots of good stuff there and the price discount isn't anything to scoff at.

People tend to forget that real-world selection is nothing special either. The other day I went out to buy a book as a birthday present for one of Belle's friends. We called a couple of stores to see who had it in stock, and then when I got there, they didn't actually have it, so I got to trundle over to another branch and wait in line to buy it. This is not, by the way, an isolated incident: I'm always looking for stuff in the chain bookstores, and have to go to several before I find it, or I resort to Amazon and have to wait a week. I bought the same book that night as a download, and I had it in two minutes. The Kindle's a fine way to read, but for all its flaws I think it's also a better way to buy books in the first place.

So the long and the short of it is that the Kindle is, for me, a success. I think it's better than most reviewers have treated it (the Ars review, for example, is overly harsh). That said, it's basically a $400 wireless bookstore. If you don't see yourself going to the bookstore very often, or if you've got close proximity to a used bookstore, or if you're irrationally attached to the idea of paper, that's a lot of money to spend. I personally love the experience of the Kindle (or more accurately, the lack thereof), and I love the fact that I'm not buying more physical books that I'll read once and then have to find space to store (or haul down to Manassas to sell).

January 15, 2008

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Money Where My Mouth Is

More details in a while, but so far I'm pretty happy with it.

January 2, 2008

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Hacking the Kindle

For my own future reference: a reverse-engineering blogger has gotten shell access to the Kindle's Linux-based OS. The interesting part is the second half, where he publishes an easter egg-like list of keyboard shortcuts, including one that finds the nearest gas stations or restaurants based on the cellular modem's location data.

Amazon really needs to ship my order. I've got a lot of books I want to read, both in the disposable pulp and current affairs categories, and I figure that if I buy them in digital form, the thing will pay for itself in a year.

November 29, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Print and Sentiment

The reaction to the Kindle by Internet pundits seems mixed so far, which is fine--everyone gets an opinion, and most of them are wrong. But what amazes me is the incredible attachment to the printed book. John Gruber, a man who never met a sneer he didn't like, links to one typographer's view:

PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a 'thing' in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won't. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie's Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay!
Who would have thought? Someone who makes book covers for a living isn't keen on the idea.

But of course, this is completely wrong. Music hasn't returned to "pure sound" at all, and while it might have started that way it hasn't existed in that form for more than 70 years, since people sold sheet music on the streetcorner. Music is a commodity now, and the iPod didn't change that. If anything, it made it worse.

In fact, the music metaphor works, but not the way the writer clearly hopes. He's expressing a kind of nostalgia for the form of the printed word--hence his distaste for "a whopping one typeface" and the concept of reading on a screen, no matter how good it is (and an e-ink screen is shockingly good). People like this confuse the form of the book with what really makes it important: the information inside. The form is important, granted, since a display that distracts or grates on the eyes prevents you from getting at that information. But it's not the book, any more than a CD is the music.

Insisting that a book has to be on paper is like insisting that music has to be on vinyl, because without the feel of a record's grooves "it's just not the same experience." It was a silly point of view then, and it's a silly point of view now. I'm not saying that the Kindle will change everything, necessarily, but it seems curiously obtuse to insist that the change is never going to come just because you like paper. I like paper too, but I'm not going to insist that there's something magical and perfect about it that will last forever.

Here's the thing: like a lot of other people, I've been reading e-books for years now. Every PDA I've owned, practically my first move has been to put an e-book reader on it. It's incredibly convenient: I bore easily, but I've almost always got something to read. And I'm not really an oddity. Lots of people read onscreen for hours a day--you know, what with the Internet, and all.

I could say a lot of great things about electronic text. I took my current job because journalism is going through this same transition (and not always gracefully), and I wanted to be a part of it. I think it's genuinely important. But I will point out at least one way that the form of a physical book is something not to romanticize:

Yesterday I re-read Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. It's one of my favorite books, and Banks is one of my favorite authors. Sadly, my copy of Player of Games is stolen. It's a bootleg e-book that I picked up my senior year of college. I wish I could have paid for it--but of course, the book's been unavailable in the US for more than 10 years now. Banks's other titles have been out of print for even longer. For some reason--perhaps because of his outspoken Socialist beliefs--American publishers don't bring most of his stuff here, with the exception of a short-story collection and a couple of the weaker (and less political) novels. Good luck finding him in your average Barnes and Noble.

Now, at the moment Kindle doesn't offer those missing Banks titles either. But that doesn't have to be the case. There's no burden for shipping an e-book, or for "printing" it domestically. There's no reason that I shouldn't be able to buy it and give money to my favorite author. That's the whole point of digital distribution--indeed, that's the whole promise of the Internet: it eliminates the physical space that, while traditional, is also cumbersome and prone to interference by powerful actors.

November 26, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Book Burning

Against my better judgement, I'm really interested in Amazon's Kindle ebook. Let's get the objections out of the way first.

First and foremost, it only reads .txt and .azw at the moment, the latter being Amazon's DRM'd file format. No RTF, no PDF, HTML only through the web browser. Second, because its ebook files are protected this way, you can't loan them to someone else or sell them when they're done. There's no used book market for the Kindle.

But I don't think either of those matter, because I doubt they'll actually last. Amazon has stated, obliquely at least, that the platform will open at some point to new applications--but it'll probably be hacked long before that. And there's a fundamental difference between DRM for text and for audio: with audio, stripping DRM often means losing data--burning to a CD and re-ripping, for example, is a lossy process--but stripping DRM off text can usually be done without losing anything. Books that I buy from Amazon will probably be convertible to something else, if I should ever need to do so, the same way that Microsoft's LIT format has now pretty much been cracked open.

It's possible to freak out too much about DRM. The fanatics at Boing Boing, for example, recently had a hissy fit over Amazon's MP3 license, which (in theory) restricts resale. Were they planning on reselling MP3s? Could Amazon actually enforce that? Probably not, to both questions, but that's not stopping people from getting hysterical about it, even though the average user couldn't care less.

The draw of the Kindle, for me, is that I buy a lot of books, and I typically buy them from Amazon. The fact that Kindle is usually cheaper is nice, as is the fact that the books wouldn't take up physical space. Our apartment has a fair share of bookshelves, and they're overflowing at the moment. It would be nice not to have to worry about piling up more dead trees in our limited real estate.

And the free wireless network is also tempting. Despite my disagreement with both its general philosophy and content, you can kill a lot of time with Wikipedia. And an always-on cellular web browser, no matter how basic, is a pretty big value-add. When external applications make their way onto the Kindle--which, again, I think is pretty much near-certain, even if Amazon changes its mind and tries to stop them--it could be a really killer value.

Right now, the only deterrents are the lack of availability and the $400 price tag, and that's probably a good thing. I'd guess we're going to see the Kindle develop over the next 6 months to a year, until it reaches something more like its full potential. At which point I might actually be able to buy one.

All that said, as the title of the post hints, isn't a fire just about the last thing you want your book platform to evoke?

July 30, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»grossman

Book review: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

There's a fine line between satire of genre fiction and the fiction itself. Soon I Will Be Invincible wobbles back and forth on that line more than a few times. As a superhero book, it's pretty weak. As a satire, it's much stronger. I just wish it spent more time there.

Invincible is divided into two plotlines, told in alternating chapters. Odd-numbered chapters are narrated by Doctor Impossible, a super-intelligent inventor and villain, who begins the novel locked up in a foolproof jail cell. The other chapters follow a rookie hero who calls herself "Fatale" after leaving a Brazilian super-soldier program, and finds herself joining the world-renowned Champions (the equivalent, I think, to the Justice League). Impossible's chapters are usually everything that you could hope from a supervillain: wry observations about evil plans, weary complaints about the difficulty of disposing toxic waste, and contempt for the goody-two-shoes superheros.

Fatale's half of the story, on the other hand, is really less than captivating. She spends much of her time uncovering mysteries that the reader sees coming from a mile away, or opening up the sordid past for the Champions (which is much less sordid or interesting than it could have been). Grossman may have been trying to create flawed heroes through Fatale's detective work, but it comes across as standard comic-book soap operatics. When this bleeds over into Impossible's story as the book goes on, it begins to wear thin.

At the start of Invincible, Doctor Invincible poses the question of why so many of the most intelligent supers go bad--why does he do the things he does, even though he's clearly aware of the cliches that surround him? The book eventually concludes that it's just high-school politics writ large. This isn't necessarily a bad place to take the genre, since it's recognizable in both the psyches and stereotypes of comic fans and writers, but it's not terribly original either, and it's been done better. In the end, I stayed with the book not for the message, but for the moments of sly genre deconstruction: Batman as autistic, the lists of failed plans for world conquest, or underground super fighting rings. Invincible does these moments very well, even if its broader themes are clumsy. There have, I think, been really very few non-comic works that really examined the ideology of comics well, and I was disappointed to find that Soon I Will Be Invincible does not change that. This book is a fun, fast read, but I wouldn't hold high expectations for it.

July 19, 2007

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Potter's Heel

Harry's kind of a jerk.

Actually, that's a bit harsh. He's not a jerk any more than the next teenager, although that's not saying much. But Harry Potter's not particularly interesting, either. He's a poor hero, either in ideological or literary terms. There are lots of reasons that I think a person could dislike J.K. Rowling's books--they're formulaic, trite, cloaked in nostalgia, and not terribly original. If you've got to read youth fantasy, you can do much better...

...which is your cue to note that I am (like everyone else who dares to dislike Rowling's work) humorless, elitist, and needlessly contrarian. If I'm not cloaked in child-like wonder at the series, the conventional wisdom goes, there must be something wrong with me. And at this point, fine. If you can't understand why someone else finds the books tedious, I'm not going to argue with you. Come back later, and we'll talk about something less distasteful for both of us.

Anyway, as I was saying, I think there are lots of reasons that someone could dislike the Harry Potter books, but for me it's always come down to Harry himself. Because he's kind of an unpleasant little sod, isn't he? It's easy to miss, because he's portrayed so sympathetically (although I would never call Rowling a cunning wordsmith, her prose is far from wooden). But I always find, reading the books (and I have read them all, some of them twice), that it's hard to rectify the oddities of Harry's actual character with the character that Rowling thinks she's writing.

Let's recap. When we first meet Mr. Potter, we're told that he is famous because Voldemort's attempt to killed him backfired. Over the next few books, Harry takes place in a number of conveniently year-long escapades, mostly because the recovering Voldemort insists on tying up this loose end, and not because of any action on Harry's part. Eventually, Rowling strengthens this plot from simple revenge by adding a few macguffins: a prophecy that links the two, as well as some magical handwaving like psychic links. But what increasingly becomes clear is that Harry himself did not actually defeat the Dark Lord--I believe one book credits his parents' love (a mushy, underwhelming plot device if ever there was one) with deflecting the death curse.

But he's got other virtues, right? Not really, other than a garden-variety bravery that comes standard on every young fantasy hero. Harry's a poor student, and if he doesn't cheat than he's at least willing to come very close. His selective ethics are discomforting. He has a poor temper, and regularly fights with the people around him over very stupid things. His magical skills don't seem to be noticeably stronger or more refined than the other students. Hermione regularly outstrips him in every category, except for Being An Insufferable Stereotype of a Teacher's Pet. Harry is, in other words, a flawed (and frankly, unattractive) character.

Now, I personally welcome the average hero. I'd love to read a book about someone in a fantastical universe who is not either The Hero of Legend, an Unlikely Savior, or A Being of Vision. But Rowling is not writing those books. Instead, she's writing stories of a young man with a destiny, and her other characters insist on responding to Harry as if he's someone great. People are impressed with Harry, even though by his actions and attitudes he is really quite unimpressive. In general, he overcomes obstacles through either the help of others, or a magical deus ex machina which owes nothing to his own skills or abilities. It's almost sad, really, that in a world filled with wizards and monsters, someone like Harry Potter can even flag down a taxi.

I would like to believe, honestly, that this is the joke. I'd like to think that the Harry Potter books are really a satire about some poor kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, stuck trying to live up to the sadistic prophecies that always anchor sub-standard fantasy novels. His fate as an orphan is just one of the cruel, ultimately shallow literary devices that a fourth wall-breaking protagonist could bitterly lament. But I see no evidence that the author is not playing it straight, and the discontinuity between Harry and the events around him is glaring. Why is he a hero? Only because the book says he is.

At the core of a great deal of (bad) fantasy is this concept of "the chosen one," and Harry Potter slots right into it. If anyone is going to sling around accusations of elitism, it should probably start there. Yet since most readers of Rowling's series are probably blissfully unaware of either the overworn tropes of genre fiction, or the progress that's been made in overcoming them, this context is lost. It's more depressing than anything else. These are not bad books, when all is said and done. They're technically well-written, smoothly plotted, and deftly marketed. But let's face it: they're pulp, and not even the best pulp out there. Considering that Harry's fans are unlikely to ever read another fantasy novel--that they'll never graduate from Hogwarts School of Magic to Unseen University or the college of New Crobuzon--they deserve a better class of protagonist.

July 18, 2007

Filed under: fiction»short

Skin Deep

She's got scars all over, this girl. Not emotional or metaphorical, either. They ring her body like the orbits of tiny moons, dot her arms and legs with slick spots like impact craters. Her skin is a whole solar system of past abuse, although she can't even remember skinning her knee.

If only she could remember where they came from. As far back as anyone can remember, she's had them, although there weren't always so many. In elementary school, they had barely surfaced. But by high school, the scars had spread and thickened. And they began to itch. God, did they itch: some days it seemed like all she did was scratch. Even today, most times it's all she can do to get through the workday, then go home and run her fingernails up and down the scars, hoping for relief.

One day she just can't take it anymore. Can't stand the looks, the itching, the self-loathing. The girl skips work, puts on her best suit, does her makeup, and then walks down to the closest highway overpass. She stands on the edge, wavers.

Down below, on the highway, someone looks up from their grey, two-door sedan, and sees the girl. Shocked, they freeze up, foot instinctively going to the brakes. It's the wrong move, because the driver behind them isn't paying attention either, and plows right in. The next car is a tractor-trailer, which jacknifes across the lanes, horns blowing the entire time. Traffic slams to a halt, but not before four more cars have joined the pileup, sliding it gently into one of the bridge supports. The impact knocks the girl backwards, off the rail and onto the asphalt of the bridge. She shakes her head, blinks against the smoke from below, and staggers home.

The next day, the flesh of her right hand and arm is unmarked all the way to the elbow.

***

She tries another bridge later in the week, superstitious, although this time she waits until late at night. No accidents. No newly unscarred skin, either. She can't stop touching her arm, although it doesn't itch anymore. She's hypnotized by the sight of herself without imperfections. Her fingers move more easily now. She types more quickly at work. Her coworkers don't notice the physical change under her long-sleeve shirt, but they whisper about how she smiles.

The girl finds other solutions. One day she trips a coworker down a stairwell by accident, and her scars retreat to above the elbow. She pulls the fire alarm, emptying the building for a couple hours, and the new skin reaches her neck. After each act of chaos, the affected scars feel cool to the touch before they fade away overnight. She feels guilty about the remedy, but can't stop. It feels too good to wake up with a little more of herself uncovered. The girl had become used to her markings, as if they were integral to her identity. That has changed: she sees herself now as someone pure, maybe even beautiful, being revealed from underneath her retreating disfigurement. She hums "Swan Lake" to herself on the Metro in the mornings.

And deep down, she loves the daring, mischievous (dangerous?) girl who plays the pranks, sabotages the work of others, causes such a terrible commotion. It is a thrilling thing to suddenly be a femme fatale, one with a skin full of excuses for her bad behavior.

When the scars have retreated past her face (opened a door as that bike messenger was going by--she sent him a card at the hospital but is suprised to find that she's not really sorry), the girl can't hide the change in her appearance anymore. She tells her friends and coworkers that it's laser surgery. Amazing, what they can do nowadays, she says. A boy from Customer Service asks her out one day. She lets him take her to the movies. He's almost amused by her scars and their story. After the third date, she stops answering his calls. When they pass in the hall, she remains stone-faced to his pleading glances. She responds to his e-mail by threatening to report him to HR. And at home, she relishes the now-smooth surfaces of her shoulders in the mirror.

***

The smaller the markings become, the more they itch. At least, that's the way it seems. Maybe it's just her mind being focused on them. She wonders if she's becoming obsessed.

The smaller the markings become, the harder it is to remove them. The same trick won't work twice, she finds (no card for that cyclist), although a slightly more harmful version sometimes does. She wonders where it is leading her, and how far she is willing to go.

She no longer wonders at why her scars vanish, or why her cure is someone else's disease. She comes close, one day, to that level of introspection. It's at the movies, of all places.

The girl has always heard about yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. She feels like it's expected of her, now that she's become a walking catastrophe. It would be a shame to let it go untested. So on opening day for the summer blockbuster, she buys herself a ticket to the prime-time showing, plus a big box of popcorn, nachos, and the largest soda they'll sell her. Then she plops down in the middle of the theatre and kicks her boots up on the seat in front of her.

Her mistake is just one of timing. She's not really paying attention to the flick at all, just waiting to see when everyone is most likely to be distracted. So the girl doesn't realize that the onscreen hero has a gun pulled on his nemesis--it's a very tense moment--right when she sits up, takes a deep breath, and screams:

"FIRE!"

There's a pause, a silence, and then a laugh from the people in the theatre. "Yeah, shoot the bastard!" someone yells. The girl is taken aback. She's lost her nerve for a moment. The action hero puts down his gun, an explosion goes off, and the light reflected from the projector's beam shows the girl the faces of the people all around her. Some are bored, some are laughing, some are enraptured. Has she really believed that she can cure herself by putting those same people in harm's way? Was she really willing to do that? Look at them, enjoying their packaged violence. Ghouls.

Her left-hand fingers itch under the scars.

She takes the top off her soda. Dumps it in the lap of the audience member to the right. Stands up, tipping the nachos over to the left. Walks out. Doesn't think about the ethics of her peculiar skin any more.

***

And so, in the end, the girl finds herself in the basement of her apartment building, staring at the water heater, a monkey wrench in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She's thinking that if she hits it in just the right place, she could dump cold water into the showers of everyone in the building. Of course, she could also set the place on fire. Maybe even blow the tank, send natural gas flooding through the basement to be ignited by a single spark, kill everyone in the building including herself. It would probably hurt quite a bit.

On the other hand (ha!), there's still just the tips of the fingers on her left hand still unclean, the scars masking and distorting her fingerprints. On cue, she scratches the fingers together in absent-minded irritation.

She hefts the wrench. Looks at the piping. Thinks about the possibilities. In the part of her mind that still feels like she has a choice, she wonders if she'll swing.

May 23, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»comics

With Great Powers

For future reference: Brian Michael Bendis's graphic novel Powers is available online for free at Newsarama, here.

May 1, 2007

Filed under: fiction»brainjuice

Humor in Uniform

Add this one to the bad signal file: while commenting on a BoingBoing story about the shutdown of Cryptome.org, Teresa Nielsen Hayden mentions this oddity:

You know, I haven't thought of this in years, but some while back I got into a conversation with a guy on a train (or maybe we were in a bar; I don't recall) who said he had an intelligence background, and sounded like the real thing. (The real thing is distinctive. I've talked to other guys who genuinely did have intelligence backgrounds. Nobody else sounds like them.)

Anyway, what this guy said was that Reader's Digest has deep old connections with the intelligence community, and that they use it to launch ideas and articles they want to have in circulation. I have to say that Cryptome.org isn't the sort of thing I expect to see written about in Reader's Digest.

I expect there's nothing to it.

Whether or not it's true, I find the juxtaposition captivating. Maybe it's just the mundanity of the outlet--which, admittedly, is the point. I used to read my great-grandfather's large-print copies of Reader's Digest as a kid. The idea that some of it was a form of propaganda or an under-the-radar public influence campaign is so deliciously paranoid that it almost circles back around to plausibility.

Future - Present - Past