Category Archives: Books

Reading is Probably Good

What’s with this poster?

Is it supposed to encourage kids to read? Then why talk to their parents (“your kids on books”)? Is there anything that would turn kids off quicker than telling them their parents want them to do it?

Is the poster supposed to encourage parents to allow their kids to read? But is that really a problem? Are there still a lot of parents out there who don’t want their kids reading?

Let’s assume there are such parents. Who are they?

From the poster, I’d guess they’re not conservatives. One of the children is shown with a witch’s hat and wand, a la Harry Potter.

Is that an outcome that would encourage conservatives to permit their kids to read? Not if the stereotypes are correct.

Also, note that while there are four children, the two girls are inspired to imagine more macho roles: an underwater explorer and a knight in armor. The boys become … well, I think it’s a pirate, but it might be a colonial American or possibly someone from the old west. The other is the aforementioned witch. Again, if the target of this ad is a stereotypical conservative, those are probably outcomes to be avoided.

I’m all for kids reading (Harry Potter and all). But this poster seems to be a plea for liberals to allow their kids to read, which makes me wonder if it’s a sort of Freudian slip.

Kindle and the DOJ

Since I’m talking about the Kindle, I should give my opinion about the Department of Justice lawsuit against the big publishers. (Like you asked.) (So what? Who’s blog is this?)

Here’s the deal. The DOJ alleges that the big publishers colluded with Apple to develop an “Agency” pricing model that allowed them to raise prices on eBook titles beyond the $9.99 that Amazon was trying to establish as the normative price for new titles in its Kindle market.

The lawsuit will establish whether or not such collusion took place. But it doesn’t matter, according to people like the New York TimesDavid Carr:

Let’s stipulate that there may have been some manner of price-fixing here…. But … [f]rom the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate.

The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissman agrees that guilt or innocence is missing the point:

The publishers come off as a smidgen less than sympathetic in this tale. The government’s filings are filled, for instance, with descriptions of hush hush dinners…. But…Amazon isn’t simply a garden variety retailer, or a helpless, well-meaning innovator. It’s the dominant force in books, and especially digital publishing.

It might be true they broke the law, in other words, but! since it’s Amazon, then it’s okay. (Remember the image of Lady Justice on courthouses with a special blindfold that lets her see whether the victim is Amazon?)

Nonsense. The reason Amazon has a near monopoly in the market is that its Kindle reads documents packaged in a proprietary format. Once I buy a couple of books published in Amazon’s Kindle format, I’m less and less inclined to buy books in Barnes and Noble’s competing format.

In the real world, we don’t have this problem because all books come in the same, nonproprietary format: words printed on paper. I can buy a book the Friends of the Library’s book sale and take go read it in the nice chairs at Barnes and Noble, or I can buy a book at Title Wave here in Anchorage and sell it on the Amazon used-book market when I’m done.

We could have that kind of flexibility in eBooks too, except that the publishers don’t want us too. So they put their books in formats that provide DRM (digital rights management) or copy protection. They don’t want you to be able to make copies of your books. That’s why the Kindle app on your computer can search (yay!) but can’t cut and paste even the smallest excerpt of a book.

The publishers are terrified that, if they sell you an eBook in an open format, you’ll make copies of it for all your friends.

Now, from the world of digital music, we have abundant evidence that there isn’t much market for pirated works when the variety and price of legitimate works is low enough. When CDs used to cost $17, people ripped them and passed USB drives full of MP3s around the dorm. But when you can buy the one song on the CD that you actually want, and it plays on all kinds of players, and it only costs a buck, most people are okay with just buying it.

For that matter, there’s evidence from the world of paper-and-ink books that people don’t make bootleg copies unless either the price (think: college textbooks) or the variety (think: out of print books) is a problem.

So the publishers could solve the problem immediately by offering their books through Barnes and Noble and Apple in an open format unencumbered with DRM. People would switch readers, and Amazon would have to provide support for the open format. That’s what Charlie Stross says, and he’s right.

But the publishing-industry dinosaurs are too stupid and greedy to act in their own best interest. That’s what John Gruber—who has been following on this, and whose links were my entry point into this controversy—says, and Gruber’s right, too.

But…there is no “but.” This is a problem the publishers made and they can unmake it whenever they want. In the meantime, they need to play by the rules.

God knows it would be easy enough for the publishers to get the rules changed: Congre$$ is alway$ ready to hop into bed with their old-media sugar-daddies and impose ever more restrictive imaginary property regimes, First Amendment be damned. Publishers could buy legislation that makes a mess of eBooks as readily as broadcasters did screwed up video.

We’re asked to look the other way while publishers collude to keep prices artificially high and the user experience and versatility low. We have to do that, you see, or Amazon might do to publishing what Steve Jobs did to the music business: drag it, kicking and squealing, into the 21st century.

Updating the Kindle Touch

I got a Kindle Touch for my birthday last year, although it didn’t arrive until around Thanksgiving. It has been something of a disappointment. My one child got a Barnes & Noble Nook about the same time, and it is by far the better product. (I’m not alone in that assessment.) (While I’m sure about the Nook, I’m not sure about Barnes & Noble. I chose the Amazon product to access the Amazon market. If ebook readers used a common industry-wide format, the Nook would be a no-brainer.)

Anyway, the Kindle Touch is a few grams too heavy to be comfortable, and the user interface is … well, there’s no way to sugarcoat this: it stinks. You never know where to press because sometimes you press in the invisible right-hand zone to move forward. Sometimes you “flick” things up from the bottom. To go forward you tap the right side. To go backward you flick the left. And so on.

But I see there is a new firmware update for the Touch. I don’t know if it’s any good, but it can hardly be any worse. I’m installing it as I type this. I’ll let you know how it works out.

Still Waiting for the Kindle

Well, I won’t get my Kindle Touch until Monday, but at least now that the Fire reviews have all posted, people are beginning to talk about the Touch:

Awkward delays arise, and repainting of the e-Ink screen sometimes lags. But, overall, the experience is quite good and, in some situations, noticeably better than using the previous iteration’s buttons. This is especially true of picking items from lists or selecting text in specific areas of the screen—touch, even on a screen that isn’t especially responsive, is simply much faster than navigating via repeated button presses.

Also this: “But if your focus is on reading, I would actually recommend the bottom of the line model. It’s lighter and more comfortable to hold in one hand, and the touch screen doesn’t really make the page turning experience that much better.”

I Totally Want One of These

Ion Audio is coming out (“Soon!”) with a gadget to let you photograph your books quickly and easily. Take a look at it here.

I’ve been thinking about building something like that myself for most of last year. (See this video for some ideas about how you’d do it yourself.) But the DIY project that guy outlines involves finding two cameras that can run CHDK, and a computer that can run some kind of interleaving software, etc., etc. The appeal of a turnkey solution is pretty significant.

(The pricing isn’t set yet, but if they can hold it to something like the estimated $150, that would be another draw. The DIY project would cost that much, plus a lot of time.)

Kudus: Engadget (which isn’t impressed) via CNET.

Why is Scanning So Crappy?

Lileks recounts the fun of getting a new scanner for Christmas. There’s really nothing new or novel about it though (except that he took time to make screen captures of all the dialog boxes, so he could mock them). The fact is, all scanners suck.

I have ready access to scanners (all-in-ones, actually) made by HP, Epson, Brother, and, at work, a monster Konica-Minolta printer-copier that also scans. Every one of them is a disaster. The printing software is good and the scanning software stinks.

The hardware may be awesome, but the software is horrible. And bad as it is on Windows, it’s worse on a Mac. (Objectively worse; subjectively it’s worse by far, because the majority of software on a Mac is beautiful.) My personal theory, which I developed while working for one of the companies I just named, is that scanner software is written by electrical engineers instead of computer scientists. EE’s may be great with resistors and capacitors, but I haven’t met one in years who was a more than passable programmer. (But these are rants for another day.)

Anyway, my advice to Lileks and anyone else is twofold:

  1. Where possible, don’t use a scanner. Just take a picture of the document with your digital camera. It’s a lot quicker. (Consider this DIY book scanner the end-result of this line of thought, but you can start with something more practical.)
  2. If you must use a scanner: use one that will write to a USB drive. Do all your scanning to the USB drive, then use sneaker-net to move the resulting files onto your computer, where you can use photo-editing software to crop, etc.

Give Me Back My Legions

I finished Harry Turtledove’s Give Me Back My Legions. It’s a novelization of the Varian Disaster — the defeat of Rome by German forces under Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. It’s certainly an interesting topic, and Turtledove has produced a readable book.

It’s not really a great book, however. It’s chief flaw is its repetitiveness. Every time one of the characters does something, they reflect on it. When it rains, the Romans complain about the weather. When they have a cup of wine, they think about how people back home water it. When they offer some to Arminius, he reflects to himself how much better beer is. Not just once or twice, you understand, but over and over and over again. I’d guess you could cut out half of this 300-pager. Or you could really tighten it up and cut it to an 80 page novella.

I haven’t read much Turtledove, so I don’t know if this is just his writing style. I noticed he doesn’t like complex sentences. He likes it short and sweet. It’s like Joe Friday. Terse. Succinct. That makes me wonder if he thinks he’s writing for children. (I really liked his kids’ books; more importantly, so did my children.) But that can’t be the case with Give Me Back My Legions: it’s not awash in sex and violins, but it deserves at least a PG-13.

Kindle 2 looks pretty sweet

Amazon’s front page today is all about the version 2.0 Kindle. I have to admit, it looks pretty sweet. Choosing B&W rather than color was a good trade-off so you can up the pixel density.

I looked up three books I’m reading right now, and they were all available. Interestingly, they were also (slightly) cheaper on Kindle than on paper. In my experience, electronic versions are usually no cheaper than the hardcopy. This is especially true of bibles and bible-study materials like commentaries and lexicons. I understand why the BDAG is $150 in print (well, sort of) but there’s no reason they should charge that much when you spare the trees.

On the other hand, the Kindle costs $360. How many years does that buy you? That is, what price are you paying for your new “bookshelf?” And will the next version read your ebooks? (And if it reads them at all, will there be a media conversion “upgrade” fee?)