Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Amazon Kindle

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

The Amazon Kindle is great – it’s the first ebook reader that feels ‘right’ enough to be used everyday. I honestly think it’s pointing to the future of books. It frees the word from the constraints of the bound paper technology that’s currently most commonly used. If you think about books in terms of being a technology – merely a medium to preserve the written word, it’s easier to see the Kindle as a glimpse of the future of books.

I’m fascinated by the argument that books are perfect as they are; that there’s no way ebook readers will replace our shelves of books. That argument has more to do with the familiarity and sentimental value of the book form, rather than which format is better.

  • Can you point to a word in a printed book and instantly get the definition?
  • When you close a book, does it remember where you left off without mutilating the book or using a separate item as a bookmark?
  • Can you instantly change the size of the text when your eyes get tired or your eyesight weakens?

With a Kindle, there’s no need to keep a dictionary handy, worry about losing a bookmark, or trying to find a large-print version of the books you want to read.

I have currently only have two problems with the Kindle. I don’t care that its support for graphics is limited, that it can’t do color images, and that every book is in the same stupid font. I’m an early adopter and will put up with things like that for a chance to have bleeding edge technology (and to pretend I’m in the future I read about in sci-fi stories…and yet, we are living in the future, that’s for another post). One problem can be fixed with time, and the other either has to do with my perception or the concept itself.

1. Not every book is available to buy or download. I’d love to read several novels that have been languishing on my wishlist or unread on my bookshelf, but they’re not available yet to download. Sometimes it’s easier to read stuff on the Kindle than in book form. This comes down to the medium that the writing is being presented – a printed book is hard to hold for long periods, and nearly impossible when leaning in bed. It seems, at least in regards to my taste in reading material, that there’s more nonfiction content than novels in the Kindle store (there may be more novels, but I prefer ‘masculine’ novels, that’s for another post too!). So I’ve been reading all the history, business, and economics books I can find in the store that don’t trigger my B.S.-meter (almost every business book I’ve read has had some amount of bullshit).

2. Books can be dangerous. I’ve found, especially for stories and poetry, that there have been things written that have the power to change how people think and live.

For example, reading The Catcher In the Rye as a teenager* can have three outcomes: 1) Nothing; 2) The book wakes up the wrong part of your brain and you go crazy; 3) The concept of Holden Caulfield challenging everything he sees tugs at your inner rebel and helps you to see that things in this world are not as they appear – causing you to grow up a little.

And poetry – the poetry being written today is so absolutely horrific (I’m talking Worst Poetry In The Universe bad), many people today may not be exposed to the good stuff – but good poetry can help you put into words how you feel when things go terribly or wonderfully. It also helps at parties – try inserting “I’ve known fierce invalids from hot climates” into a conversation…if they mention Tom Robbins you’re probably in good company, but if they’ve read Rimbaud’s work – well, hang on to that person. 

Back to the point: it seems to me that a powerful story carries more cachet when it’s an individual item one can possess. I can just feel the weight of Allen Ginsberg’s words when I hold my worn copy of Howl and Other Poems; as I flip though the book’s pages I can smell a waft of the wonder and frustration and the joie de vivre in the words. I’ll have to put a copy of the poem onto my Kindle and try it, but I wonder if I’d experience the fullness of the poem if I first read it on an electronic device – I first read the poem on a website, but the words didn’t ring true until I was sitting in Boston Common one day and reading it surrounded by junkies and students and kids and people who may feel the same way I do. But that may be because I fell in love with fiction when books were the only medium; it’s like how people a generation behind me have trouble using instant messenger and really grokking computer technology (I test my compassion when helping people who don’t understand the concept of cut and paste!).

The technology is just beginning to change; the outcome I see is that printed books will be like vinyl records, there will be die-hard fans, but most people will use ebook readers. And all this is ignoring the Kindle’s ability to download your favorite newspaper overnight for you to read on the train, it’s beautiful packaging, and that the price of ebook readers will only go down. When you can buy an ebook for $50 bucks at an airport and download a trashy romance or goddammit, Atlas Shrugged**, everyone will be using ebooks.

*I wouldn’t recommend reading The Catcher In The Rye to anyone older than 20. It’s just not worth it by then.

**I hate, hate, hate Atlas Shrugged so much that if you want a link to buy the book, you’re on your own. Instead, read this clip from The Illuminatus! Trilogy about a parody of Ayn Rand’s pile-of-shit-disguised-as-a-novel.

The Eee PC Is Friggin HOT

Monday, December 17th, 2007

About three weeks ago I got one of those Eee PC. You know, the tiny, linux running laptop that was designed to be the OLPC for adults. It’s cheap, easy to use, based almost entirely on open source software…and is absofuckinglutly awesome. Seriously, it’s the few non-Apple gadget in years that was thoughtfully designed and planned out.

Oh, and it’s cheap. $399 cheap. Compare that the OQO or the Flipstart!

I’ve got a black model with the 4gb flash drive, 512mb RAM, and the webcam. It has Firefox, OpenOffice.Org, some games, and that’s about it. And that’s all it needs. Really, how much power do you need on a secondary laptop? That’s about all this can be, unless your computing demands are very light (mine aren’t).

After using this for several weeks it’s become clear that this is about as small as a laptop can go – the keyboard is just big enough to kinda-sorta touch type and the screen is just big enough to do browsing and document creation (I giggled when I put the Eee’s 800×480 next to my iMac’s 24″ 1900×1280 screen). But the portability is very useful for me. I can take it anywhere to get some work done or do some writing or just surf. I can’t wait to test it out on a trip when I go home to visit the family in a week.

As for the software, I think using open-source software for everything is a giant leap towards commoditizing the most common software. It also means that if I were so inclined, the Eee is deliciously hackable. Hell, even the open source games are fun!

This is a great computer for very portable computing. I use it to take my work anywhere, like on the couch in the living room. And while there are some rough edges, it’s the sum of all of the parts that makes this computer great.And I can use it to justify to my friends that I like good design, not just Apple products.

This does mean that I now have three computers – the iMac, the Eee PC, and the iPhone. That’s right – my phone is a computer. Think about it – I can use it for web browsing, checking my email, playing music, watching video on YouTube. That’s like 90% of what constitutes my everyday computer use. But sometimes I need something a little bigger. With a keyboard. And a bigger screen. And Crack Attack.

***Oh, and a word for those of you who decide to get one: be very careful when you take this out in public. It’s like the iPod when it first came out or a PowerBook when no one owned one. People will bug you incessantly if you’re not careful. I really want to take this down to the neighborhood Starbucks but I was mobbed the last time.

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Apple Inc. Is My Sports Team

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Sport talk has always bored me. Between the excessive stats of baseball, the bizarre rules of football, and the mythical stature of soccer/football stars – it just didn’t excite me like it does for many people. An unintended side effect is my hampered ability at small talk due to the fact that I know embarrassingly little of team standings, history, or how well anyone is doing for the current season – not to mention I still don’t quite get the rules of football. And probably never will.

That said, I am beginning to see how people can get very involved in the myths of their favorite team. Why?

Because Apple is my sports team.

I root for them every chance that I get. The sport is hard to follow because there is lots of speculation on what plays Apple will make, and the equivalent to actual games are the Macworld Expo, the WWDC, and the occasional official announcement events scattered throughout the year. The team has a very restrictive block-out period for games, so us fans have to rely on text-based announcers physically at the event. But boy is it exciting! Who knows what moves Apple’s star quarterback, Steve Jobs, will make!

I became involved with the team late in its history – they were making a strong comeback and kicking serious ass. But despite all the hype that Apple gets in the press, the company is less like the Yankees and more like the Red Sox – they had a long, embarrassing losing streak, but have come back and whipping everyone’s ass*. To extend the analogy, Microsoft more like the Yankees – they were killing everyone for a while but now can’t get their act together, while still being the biggest money-making club (it’s not a perfect analogy, of course – a technology company can’t win an equivalent to a World Series, they can just get lots of users, and the fan base for Apple outweighs the fan base for Microsoft so much it’s absurd – OK, well I wouldn’t call that last link absurd but you get the idea :) ).

The sports analogy is getting carried away, so I’ll wrap this up. While I don’t decorate my bedroom with Apple-branded stuff, the majority of my electronics are made by them (iMac, iPod, iPhone, AppleTV, and if everything works out a Mac as my work machine) and I have more of those logo stickers than I can possibly use. And my talking about what the company is up to with my friends borders on annoyance.

So maybe I can relate.

*I should point out that it’s impossible to live in Boston and not adore the Red Sox, even if just a little.

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I’m not on Facebook or MySpace or any other social site

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

About once every two weeks I get an email from Facebook telling me someone wants me to be their friend and create an account. I’m told that this is because when you first set up a Facebook account, it asks for email addresses of your friends and checks to see if they have an account.

So far I’ve ignored every request, as well as peer pressure from other friends to get a page up.

To be honest, originally I didn’t want an account on any social site because I was afraid it’d show how pitifully few friends I really have (I have a problem with keeping up with others and general self-centeredness). But the longer I held out the more I realized that these sites had disadvantages that I didn’t like. One of my heroes, Cory Doctorow, just wrote an article articulating what I’ve been feeling about these sites. The crux of his argument is that these sites don’t help you to segment what you tell your friends – either you show them everything or show everyone nothing. In addition, you may ‘friend’ people that are really ‘acquaintances’ rather than ‘friends’ – those words seem to be interchangeable nowadays but there’s a whole spectrum of how we relate to others – from the coworker who occasionally goes out for drinks to the person you know from college who knows all the right things to irritate you and can generally pick out thoughtful gifts for you…all the way to the guy who grew up down the street from you who listens to the same music and likes the same movies and can guess how you would react to certain situations. This range of relationships isn’t really supported by most, if not all, of the social sites.

And don’t get me started on MySpace. How people came to use that to connect with friends is beyond my comprehension. MySpace makes it too easy to connect to others, too easy to become friends, too easy to show your bad taste to everyone.

So, if you want to be my friend, email me and let’s strike up a conversation. But don’t make Facebook try to get me to join.

Update: Technically, I’m actually on exactly one social site: Last.fm. But that’s because I’m always looking for new music…and I’m obsessed with the play counts of the music I listen to. Here’s my page.

Update 2: OK, things have changed. I’m on Facebook now – turns out Facebook is quite useful to track down old friends. And I have a Twitter account as well – which is great for finding new and interesting people.

Amazon Kindle and the Future of Reading

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Amazon released their Kindle ebook reader yesterday. And for a while I was excited: Amazon’s product is one step closer to the ideal ultra-portable super-library that had a user interface close to that of a dead-tree-book – even closer than the sleek ebook reader from Sony. I even was OK with the rather jagged design of the machine because of the cool box it came in and the device’s status as a first-generation device (here are some pictures of an unboxing).

But my interest died when I discovered two things:

1. Amazon is making it very hard for the user to add their own content – and more importantly copyrighted documents not available from Amazon directly. Buried in Amazon’s help site for the Kindle are instructions for getting other documents onto the device – you have to email them to Amazon directly where they will convert the document into a Kindle-compatible format (unless it’s an ASCII text file). The manual even states that Amazon will charge for this service!

2. Even though I haven’t bothered with hacking my iPhone to use third-party apps, I can use my iPhone as an ebook reader. While Safari will only work with web pages, the Mail app can read PDF and Word attachments. Even better, it’ll remember the page you were on and return to it later. So as a test I downloaded an ebook from manybooks.net that was a PDF formatted for the iPhone and emailed it to myself. And it worked beautifully! It even switched to landscape mode when I turned my iPhone on its side. So I’m happy…although I’ll have to get my non-public domain books in a more dubious manner than I’d like.

Despite my successful convincing of myself to not get a Kindle, I still think the device is very important in our march toward an improvement over the book as a technology for the written form. And eink was a brilliant invention – I hope more devices use this technology.