Category Archives: Technology

The Kindle Blues

I thought that people who did a lot of reading were supposed to be smart.

See, at the end of 2008 I ordered an Amazon Kindle, and it arrived at the end of February in 2009. I love it. It’s a brilliant device that does one thing – let you read – really, really, really well. But for such a brilliant device, it’s inspired an awful lot of unbrilliant thinking on all sides of its release.

While I was waiting for my Kindle to arrive, I subscribed to Amazon’s discussion board for the Kindle in the hopes of having a leg up before when it actually came. Well, I got that. But I got something else.

It seemed to me that a lot of other Kindle owners have the biggest entitlement mentality I’ve ever seen. I know not all of them are like that, but the ones with their hands out are the biggest complainers.

While I was waiting to get my Kindle, Amazon made the decision to quit making the original model, and introduced the Kindle 2. Everyone in line for the old model would now get the new model instead. That was pretty cool of them, right?

Except among some of the owners of what is now called the Kindle 1 – especially the more recent owners. There was outrage in some corners. Some who had bought the K1 and enjoyed it up until Amazon’s February announcement decided this switcheroo was unfair. Amazon had knowingly sold them an old product when they knew a newer version was coming out.

Using this same logic, they were probably shocked when the car in their driveway was suddenly made obsolete by the newest model. The same with their TV sets, their blenders, their sofas, and especially their computers – but do you suppose they demanded a free replacement of any of those? Amazon’s woes continued in this vein as they introduced a bigger model (the DX) and an international model of the K2 (the K2i).

The wave of unbrilliance continued as Amazon tried to hold the prices of bestsellers to $9.99. Rabid customers tried to organize boycotts when prices on some books went higher than that. This has been compounded by the fact that Steve Jobs capitulated to publisher demands in order to try and make the eReader software on the iPad more competitive against the Kindle.1

What Jobs’ turn as Neville Chamberlain did was empower publishers to put the screws to Amazon’s pricing policies for the Kindle. If Apple gave them terms, then Amazon should cough up the same agreements in spite of previous precedence. The result is “The Agency Model” – a fancy term for publishers setting their own prices for eBooks.2 And by the publishers’ way of thinking, that price should be about the same as a trade paperback.3

Of course, there’s a lot of whining going on about this, too. The entitlement readers probably attended the school that in the 2000’s claimed that “music should be free.”

Now there is a little bit of logic behind their desire for low eBook prices. After all, since there’s no paper, ink, labor, shipping, storage, etc., needed for an eBook, they should be practically free, right?

Wrong.

I agree that eBooks should have a lower cost than DTB’s (Dead Tree Books), but as something of an industry insider, I also understand that there are some book-related costs that publishers still can’t shake, namely, the cost of their infrastructure – buildings, desks, and all those editors, proofreaders, sales persons… and then they have to pay the authors something, right?

Plus, the publishing industry has another dirty little secret they’re not sure they want you to know. That is, in an eight-figure deal (that’s millions with an extra digit in front of it – tens, twenties, thirties, etc.) with a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling, they do not get their money back in associated book sales. What they have basically done is paid an exorbitant amount of money to have a prestige author in their house’s lineup. And no, they don’t make money from movie sales, etc., because the agents for these writers have already negotiated to keep those. Where they make their money is from mid-list authors, the ones who meet their sell-through and go on to make profits for themselves and their publishers. These are the names you’ve probably seen on the Bestseller Lists and wondered who in the world they were. Now you know. They’re the publishers’ bread and gravy.

The other dirty little secret of the publishing world is that right now, they’re in the same mess that the music industry was in a decade ago when mp3’s were coming into their own. And judging from their behavior, they have learned nothing from the mistakes the music industry made back then.

As example, early on in the Kindle’s history, many publishers put the smackdown on the Text-To-Voice feature, which reads any text document on the Kindle in a well-rendered synthetic voice. They claimed it was a threat to their revenue from audio books.

Well, let me tell you about Text-to-Speech. As I have already chronicled in these pages, when I was doing the most recent edit to …and that’s the end of the news, I loaded into my Kindle so I could read it without being tempted to edit it. While commuting, I tried using the T2S on the document and… what a rush it was hearing it read my own novel to me. I was so thrilled, you’d have thought I was listening to an audio recording of it by James Earl Jones.

But while the synthetic voice (you have a choice of male or female) is nice, it still has oddities of pacing and pronunciation (it never did pronounce my female protagonist’s name correctly). And if I was going to listen to, say, Moby Dick and had the choice, I’d take a James Earl Jones recording of it over either Kindle voice every time. It’s a no-brainer that the publishers have made, in their avarice, a brainer.

The transition to eBooks is going to be a rough one.4 Amazon has stumbled in the process too, like with their release of 1984 and Animal Farm in unauthorized editions, and the, um, Orwellian way that they took them back. But they apologized and made good on it, something a lot of publishers have yet to catch on to.

All we can do is sit tight and see how it all spins out. Meantime, anybody got a suggestion for a good book to read?

  1. Although I can’t understand why he did this. He was the one who, when he found out about the Amazon Kindle, said he wasn’t worried because “People don’t read anymore.”
  2. But Amazon is rubbing publishers’ noses in their own dirt – check out the Kindle pricing of an eBook, and some will say “Price Set By Publisher”. But I suspect this is not so much to fight back as silence the entitlement-minded whiners who say the price is too high.
  3. Or, they have the right to delay release of the eBook, anywhere from three months after the hardcover to coinciding with the release of the paperback.
  4. No, I’m not one of those doom and gloomers who thinks that eReaders spell the end of the book – just like CD’s and mp3’s put an end to vinyl, right?
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Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

After probably 10 years of having a Palm PDA in my pocket, I’m quitting.

It’s not so much any kind of idealism, or some kind of neo-ludditeism. I don’t think that the Palms available now have the integrity of product that they had when I first got one.

The first Palm I owned was a IIIx. A nice little unit that was easy on AAA batteries unless I overused the backlight. It lasted three years, until I dropped on the last night of a long camping trek that took our family through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois. The face cracked. I bought a used one on eBay and fixed it myself, but it wasn’t the same after that.

So I bought a IIIc, which was a color unit. This one had a rechargeable battery, so no more feeding AAA’s. It ran about five years and then started showing symptoms of impending doom. I was proactive and bought a newer Palm, but the IIIc wouldn’t die, so I gave it to my wife so she could try out Palmdom. It ran for another year or so before completely giving out.

The replacement, which I bought around 2005, was a Zire 72. Had a camera in it that I didn’t care about, and a feature that played mp3’s that was useful but superfluous since I had an iPod Shuffle. But it did have a nice screen, and a voice memo feature that I used a lot less than I thought I would. It lived less than two years before giving me trouble and dying.

So earlier this year, I decided to take a step backwards. For $99 I bought a vanilla Z22 that was a starter model, a step or two back on the evolutionary scale from where I had been. Less resolution on the screen, bare bones features, but all the stuff I depended on the Palm for – calendar, address book, memos, Bible. I had gotten one for my wife to replace the IIIc, and it seemed to work fine.

Mine worked for less than a year. Last Friday it decided not to turn on in spite of being freshly charged. Attempts were made over the weekend to charge and revive it, but it was dead, Jim.

I did a little quick arithmetic and concluded I’d gone through two Palms in as many years after having had two models that gave me nine. Well, they’ve changed hands at least once; maybe Palm isn’t the company it used to be.

So I dug out my old DayTimer binder, printed out my remaining 07 date book and contacts into pre-formatted pages, cut them, punched them, and presto. I am low tech once again. Thirty bucks a year on refills is cheaper than $99 or more a year on new Palms.

However, there is a bigger issue. This thing has gotten me to thinking about my brain. I had heard someone talking on the news or somewhere (and this is symptom one – I can’t remember where), and they were blaming modern technology for what they saw as the softening of our brains. Calculators perform mathematical functions for us (instead of… slide rules? An abacus? Fingers? Stones in a pouch?). Pocket phones remember phone numbers. PDA’s and Google and Yahoo have calendars and alarms. It’s no longer incumbent upon us to remember anything.

As opposed to long ago, when oral tradition was everything, where tricks like adding rhymes and then meter helped the storytellers remember the story, the birth of both poetry and song. And even 100 (well, say 150) years ago, when folks would memorize and recite poetry for each other in one another’s parlors. Or even as recently as when I was in the third grade and had to memorize one poem a month (I still remember the opening lines of the one about the Village Smithy, written by, I think, Longfellow).

Now what do we have occasion to remember? I’m saddened to think that I can name all of the members of Yes from their start up to about 1988 or so, but I still can’t remember my son’s cell phone number.

Or to put it another way. At my work, there are 7 fax numbers that I use once a month. Each month I look at my list and write them down,, then punch them into our fax machine, so that’s two exposures. I have been working directly with the client that uses these numbers for seven years. So that gives us 12 x 2 x 7, which means I’ve run every number through my brain 168 times during that time. How many do you suppose I know? Only one, and that was a number I already had memorized from when I worked for the company that owned the number. And I know the last four digits of another number because it’s 1350, the frequency of their AM radio station. Other than that? Pffft.

How critical is it that I know all of these numbers? In the long run, probably not that. I suppose I never learned them because I never had to. They’re on a sheet on a bulletin board that overlooks my desk. I don’t know the regular phone numbers, either, though I use more often. On my phone, each has a four-digit speed dial code. And I don’t know those codes because, you guessed it, they are all on that chart, too.

Basically I never memorized this stuff because I never had to.

Well, maybe I ought to start exercising my brain a little more. Apparently, a lot of other people feel the same way, judging from the rising popularity of brain-building games like Nintendo’s Brain Age for the DS and Big Brain Academy for the Wii (where the worst I do is on the memory games). And now I’m similarly inclined because I recently realized that, while I can spout all of those Yes-ites and what instrument they played, and probably which albums they were on, I’m pathetic when it comes to doing more practical things like quoting Bible verses (usually I paraphrase and say, “This is from the Joe Standard Version”).

(Although maybe I never memorized verses because I never felt the need since I try to read frequently – and, of course, part of my Palm software included two translations of The Bible.)

So what am I going to do about all of this? I’m not sure. I’m still getting over being ticked off with myself for letting my brain get so lazy. I suppose I can work on memorizing Bible verses again. Maybe I should memorize a poem a month like back in third grade. Although it might be enough if I memorized some of my own songs (if I could just play them with any confidence at all, knowing the words might do me good someday).

I suppose the best place to start would be to memorize my son’s cell phone number.

If I come up with a plan, I’ll let you know. I’ll even do progress reports. Unless I forget.

This is How it All Starts

Okay, so I’m at the fair last week, and somewhere along the line, either in the Men’s room or one of the Port-O-Lets, I notice the writing on the dispenser of hand sanitizer that now appears everywhere. It says, kills 99.99% of all household germs!. And I’m thinking, yeah, but it’s that other .01% you have to worry about, because they might grow up into something nasty.

That’s what gave birth to the short piece that you’ll be reading this Monday.

But of course, my brain didn’t stop working there.

See, I took something obvious, something that is worrying a lot of biologists, namely, that our psychological dependence on things like germ-killing sprays and alcohol based hand sanitizers instead of old fashioned soap might be making our immune systems lazy, and worse yet, breeding up a generation of supergerms who scoff at things like alcohol and penicillin. I just wrote it up for Monday in such a way that it has a dark, funny ending.

But really, that’s not an idea. It’s a concept. I call it a notion. Good for a 100 word story, but not strong enough to support a 100,000 word novel.

In order to do that, it needs to meet some other notions to really become viable.

Which of course, it did.

I’ve recently been wondering how much of the world’s population would have to be killed off in some kind of pandemic before our current infrastructure of internets (sic), power plants, and canned food would collapse. I’ve been wondering about loss of population percentages against a scale of technology, and what knowledge would be lost and need to be relearned in the event of something catastrophic like that.

Lost technology is something else that has caught my eye over the last couple of decades. Ever since I heard that, if for some reason we had to mount an Apollo-like mission into outer space, we could no longer do it. A lot of the Apollo-era engineers and scientists have retired or died, and we’ve spent twenty years on a “new” technology that is now wearing out.

All of this stuff, the hand sanitizer, the population numbers, and the lost technology, it was all drinking in the same bar when another of my notions walked in. Not really a notion, but a literary observation.

It’s about gunpowder.

Obviously taking a cue from history, there’s been a lot of writing in fiction that reflects the power of the invention of gunpowder. When it comes into play, it changes everything, at least in the hands of people who want to stuff it in tubes with a piece of lead on top of it, and not in the hands of folks who want to make pretty colors in the sky.

Basically, in literature, gunpowder marks a line – the beginning of an era that is reliant on science instead of mysticism. An age of enlightenment, a coming out of the dark. An age when we no longer believed in magic.

Or even, in certain pieces of fiction, a time when actual magic begins to fade from the scene as people flock to the concreteness of science. In other words, magic stops working because people stop believing in it.

This is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time, and gunpowder is such a perfect turning point. I can see why other writers have picked up this particular ball. But me? I could never suspend my disbelief to get through any fantasy piece outside of The Hobbit, which I read for a high school class. I seriously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s because the disbelief was already suspended for me with CGI creatures and effects.

So as much as I admired it, the whole magic v. gunpowder theme was a theme that I would pretty much leave alone.

Except now all of these notions are at the same table in the bar, and they’re laughing and drinking together and…

Are you there yet?

My subconscious said they belonged together. And pretty soon it bubbled up into my consciousness, which said, it starts at a county fair, with lots of people, food, and animals. A guy uses hand sanitizer, but it isn’t enough. Pretty soon, what he’s caught from somewhere has killed off so much of the world’s population that our technology infrastructure has collapsed, and a new dark age is beginning.

And that’s when… little by little… magic… starts… coming… back.

Now that is a sandbox I could play in.

It still needs a lot of work. I need characters and a time frame. Would it be a trilogy? Maybe just a single book, and by the end magic is not yet in full swing, but has shown up just enough to give a glimmer of hope.

Now I don’t know if I’ll actually ever do anything with this. It depends on if this group of notions that is now an idea keeps nagging me, keeps coming back to this same bar, and then some other friends show up…

But I bring this to you today just so you can see that this is how it happens. This is how writers take little things, like a dispenser in the Port-O-Let at the county fair and spin it until it has created an entire new universe worth exploring.

So the next time you see a writer stating out of a window, be assure that he is not simply enrapt with the squirrel skittering across the lawn – although he might be.

The long odds are, he’s probably thinking about gunpowder. And the .01% of germs that the bottle of hand sanitizer missed.

Listening:
If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys

(via iTunes shuffle play)