Tag Archives: Reading

More Technology From The Future: Star Trek and the PADD

Star Trek has always been a decent predictor of technology, from flip phone communicators to turbolift doors, and even hyposprays. But probably the most prescient device was the PADD (Personal Access Display Device).

Image Source: iO9

Image Source: io9

Not only did the PADD predict hand-held data entry and reading devices like the iPad and Kindle, it’s also one of the early cloud based devices. The PADD had the ability to tie into the main computer and download data on a particular book, technical document, image, or tech specification. They were even used for gaming, as Jake Sisko had quite an addictive Dom-jot habit (ah the perils of distraction even for the 24th century writer).

The devices were limited and special use. It seems like there ones for every shape and size task, and that they were handed between officers like paperwork in the mid twentieth-century. Most people say that we can get by on only a single device, yet even those of us who have tablets probably also have smart phones.

I have four of these “PADD’s” knocking around in my bag, and while they may have more functionality and storage, they’re just as specialized. One device can read my books to me and play limited games (and doesn’t get glare in the sun). Another is my primary library device, containing over 2000 books. My Kindle Fire is primarily a comic book reading device, and my other Android tablet is my auxiliary comic book and visual reference tablet (currently being used to look through 1000’s of RPG Maker image files). I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Image Source: Memory Alpha

Image Source: Memory Alpha

Our modern PADD’s come in all shapes and sizes, from full sized iPads to tiny smart phones, and we often do use a stylus to write (probably the only way I’ll be able to text on a smart-phone with my meat fingers).

Libraries today are already experimenting with the idea of having Kindles and iPads available for checkout, and Jeff Bezos has at times tried to make the Kindle as cheap as possible so that everyone has easy access to reading. In Bezos’ case part of the aim is to get people into the Amazon infrastructure, but still the idea of everyone having one of these devices, or even being able to just hand them out freely is enticing. I’ll always be a bit possessive with my gadgets, but the barriers to entry for tech like this are getting fewer.

And the specialized PADD’s in Star Trek do suggest an interesting idea for the future of book reading. eReaders have often been perceived as a threat to physical books, but there are ways to transform the digital tablet into a similar device, whether if it’s displaying the cover of the book you’re reading on the back, or by making a one off cheap tablet with navigation for a single book. I’ve always been more of a fan of general rather than single use products, but I think there is a happy medium to be found here.

Do you have multiple tablets, or you try to keep it to just one? What about the cloud? Do you like to read books on the device, or connect to the internet to read?

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Just when I thought I was out…

I’ve been spending the month of July moving my office. Phase 2 starts this weekend with the assembling of some desk furniture and moving my files and stuff downstairs.

Phase 1 was moving my library, and as part of that I handled just about every book in my collection, making a brief assessment as to what to keep and what to sell to HPB. I am easily suckered in by bundles, whether it’s the digital comic book / game variety these days, or actual bundles of books or magazines tied together with twine. Through one such acquisition I’d acquired a full long shelf (double stacked of course) of science fiction magazines, which had a lot of cool covers that I never looked at, with stories inside that I never read.

Image Source: Sci-Fi Stack Exchange

Image Source: Sci-Fi Stack Exchange

Despite having recently listened to Neil Gaiman’s charming introduction to Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free, I didn’t suspect that I had the story in there that would change my whole perspective on writing (especially with a lot of these older works being available in much easier to consume form on ManyBooks). So I sold about half the stack, going through each one to see if I recognized the authors, or even liked the titles to determine which ones to keep.

This weekend was Half Price Book’s coupon sale, an exercise in trying to save the most money on a single item without getting suckered in by the clearance section. On the 50% day I did what my wife and I have termed “a trifecta” hitting up the Lane, Bethel and Graceland HPB’s. At both Lane and Bethel were beautiful crowd facing carts with vintage sci-fi mags, going for $1-2 a piece. Ironically the only store that didn’t have these was Graceland where I’d actually sold my books. Now other than suspecting I should have sold the magazines somewhere else, as HPB was making a lot more money off them than I had, I had a little pang of regret for getting rid of them.

Now bear in mind, I’d had these magazines for years and I still have a good stack of at least 45-60 (plus more than that many on my Kindle). I never read them, and only looked at them when I was down in the basement, which until my office moves down there fully was not that often.

But it’s weird how even when you’ve made the decision to get rid of something, that’s when you suddenly see it everywhere you go. It could be ex-girlfriends, books, technology, or whatever, but some things we don’t get away from easily.

Fortunately I stuck to my guns and came home with a short stack of graphic novels instead of old sci-fi mags, including a copy of Blankets by Craig Thompson that Matt suggested I’d like. Admittedly I’m trading one form of shelf fillers for another, but hopefully these are things I’ll actually read. At the end of the day I live in a small house, and much as I love to be surrounded by books, they need to be books I actually look at it and fondle more often than once every seven years (no matter what Churchill or whoever may say).

Have you ever gotten rid of something, only to be tempted by it the next time you go to the store?

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Where perfection should be possible

Some people like math because problems have solutions. Most of the time, those solutions can be proved, and the right answer is unequivocally the right answer.

Math might be the only thing that works that way. Writing certainly doesn’t, and neither does programming.

Writing software requires a lot of math, creativity and logical thinking. Like writing books, writing programs have roughly two stages of revision (though in a different order).

The first thing you have to do with a program is get it to compile. Yes, there are interpretive languages like Java, but even those have to obey certain rules of syntax. In other words, your program has to not have any obvious flaws, a misspelled command, a missing semi-colon, etc. This is most akin to copy-editing which is usually one of the last things you do when writing.

Many young programmers make the mistake of thinking a program is finished and working if it compiles, just as many writers think a book is done after they first write it down.

But the next stage of checking a program is testing. My favorite way of saying this is to act like a drunken monkey is randomly hitting the keyboard. In other words, don’t assume that the user has any idea how to use the program properly. Can they still get the desired task done? You shouldn’t test program only in the ways it should be used, but in the countless other ways it could be used, even if those are wrong. Then you write additional code, or fix existing, to make sure the program can deal with all of those drunken monkeys.

This is what the writer does when they rearrange scenes, write bridging scenes, flip chapters, and put the story in front of beta-readers. You may have thought your narrative worked a certain way, but people reading it may show you otherwise, especially people who aren’t inclined toward your genre and its conventions.

But the last and most important stage of any story and any program is getting it out there.

It is impossible to code for every possible contingency, nor is it practical to do so. You could spend a month trying to solve a problem that might waste 5 minutes of 1 person’s time out of a million. That’s time that could be spent creating something else, or fixing the bigger flaws.

And you have to deal with the different ways people look at something. Anyone who’s tried to program cross-browser applications knows there is no perfect solution that looks exactly the same in all of the major web-browsers. We’re crazy enough people to get down to the pixel level and notice that Chrome adds a pixel where Internet Explorer doesn’t. And don’t even get me started about Firefox which insists on doing everything different.

Your readers will function much the same way. The way a scene will look in one person’s mind will play very differently in another’s. There may be ways they’ll look at a passage you would never have even considered. Sometimes this is wonderful and can teach you a lot about your own tendencies, and other times its annoying and you just want that person to shut up.

Whichever it is, you have to decide when a project is done, and what are the best things to fix before moving on to something else. Writing and software can be perpetual activities, but nothing would ever be finished if somebody didn’t throw up their hands and say, it’s done!

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Surreality Update

As some of you may have noticed I finished the final draft of Surreality last week. There should be about two months of proofing and formatting before the book is released on Amazon (not your summer beach read, but your fall curled up in a cabin by the fire read maybe?) There’s still a bit to do. I’m going back and forth on the formatting for chapter headers, first sentences and letters of each chapter, line spacing, scene differentiating and of course cover shooting and designing. And there’ll be a lot of Columbus themed posts before and after the launch to help you guys get even more immersed in the world of Surreality and city I write from.

But right now I’m fighting the urge that I think most writers have to face at some point. The urge to start another book right away.

This has been a bit of a pattern for me. I’ll finish a draft and be happy and pleased but exhausted. My brain wants to go in a different place for a while and I start writing on something else. Pretty soon I’m well into another first draft of a book. This so far has resulted in a queue of two more books in various stages of development, and untold numbers still in my head.

That said, I want to follow up Surreality with something exciting as soon as I can. I’m working on the outline (though admittedly all in my head at the moment) for the second book, and have a tentative idea of what books 3-4 (or 5) will be. Each of these are self-contained mysteries (but there are also series long arcs and character developments to think about as well).

And what I really should be doing is writing short stories, some for the blog, and some hopefully for some kind of publication. I have a problem though with coming up with short ideas. Everything that pops in my head wants to be a novel. I have been enjoying participating in a facebook writing group with Jo Eberhardt called Bradbury’s 52. There we write a short story each week with a brand new random theme (person, place or thing). So far the prompts have been very challenging but my mind always manages to come up with something. I think this will be a good exercise in keeping me from going down the same paths again and again, and getting me to think in different ways. Depending on how fully realized each story is, I may share some of these with you on the blog.

I’m trying to do some more reading (and more than just comic books though you’ll see some more NetGalley reviews on Thursday). I’m working through the first of the Kathy Reichs Bones novels, and I’ve got a couple of collections of short stories I’m reading to put me more in that headspace. I might try some Jeffrey Deaver as well or another Elizabeth George or Colin Dexter. I’m looking for good books in the thriller, mystery, suspense genre at the moment, so if you have any thoughts leave them in the comments.

And I of course will be working on the final text of Surreality. In fact I promise to do some work right after I post this and drink some more coffee 😉

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Why Books Are Losing

I am no big fan of DRM*

When I buy an MP3 from Amazon, I can transfer it to another computer, my Kindle, an MP3 player or Burn a CD all by just copying the file from one place to another. I don’t have to re-download it, or even be connected to the internet.

Not so for most eBooks. A book I own from Amazon may be able to be read on applications like Kindle for PC, Kindle Cloud Reader, my Kindle Touch, Fire, or even my Android tablet. But the book downloaded to each device is different, and only works on that device. I can’t download a book to my PC and then copy it to my Touch.

That’s DRM for you.

Peter Brantley, blogging for Publisher’s Weekly, goes one further. In a nutshell he compares the existing movie and TV distribution networks, that started with a narrow win for VHS as a legal format, and ends with services like Netflix or Amazon Video to the current eBook distribution model. Furthermore, he makes the case that time spent watching TV or movies is time spent NOT reading books and that if publishers want to increase their revenue streams the same way the film industry has, they need to think about the next “Netflix for Books” or something.

For me anyway books lose to TV sometimes not because of the inconveniences and restrictions of getting them, but because they fail the most American of goals, multi-tasking.

I don’t JUST watch TV. I’m not a part of the generation who tweets about a show while I’m watching, but I am the kind who has a netbook out, or even just a drawer to organize, something to do besides watching TV. This is a value I think I got from my Mom, who certainly likes some shows, but generally is looking for something to do while watching them.

Reading is like watching Anime for me. I used to watch a lot more Anime in college, when (I felt) I had time for simply watching something, because watching sub-titled anime involves a lot of reading, and a lot less time for multi-tasking. Audiobooks, or having my Touch read to me, allows for some multi-tasking, but generally I miss things unless the task I’m doing is pretty mundane. I can’t listen to non-fiction books, for instance, unless all I’m doing is either driving, or drawing images for work. Fiction’s a little easier to multi-task to, but I still feel like I’m missing something.

I think it’s this more than access that’s doing publishers a disservice and I’m not as sure how to fix it. From a technical view, video may be more available but it is not easier from a DRM perspective. Video DRM is very restrictive, often to the point of being tied to a certain device (which for anyone who’s owned a laptop longer than a few years can be a dicey prospect). And I have great access to free eBooks services from my library, tons of mysteries and non-fiction books to keep me entertained and enlightened without spending a penny.

It’s not access, but time that needs to change. One of the joys of being sick (one of the few anyway), was to have some unfettered time to read. But the truth is, I can make that time if I really want to. Not that I don’t think publishers should innovate, and be a little less paranoid with the DRM. I just don’t think it’s the reason we’re watching more TV.

TV is easier, and it doesn’t demand much from us, most of the time anyway. That’s why we like it.

*Digital Rights Management or how publishers attempt to prevent eBooks or other materials from being pirated, and keep them tethered to a single device or vendor

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What’s in my head

Growing up I was raised with the idea that there are some things you don’t want to put into your head.

Specifically some movies or images.

Now, my parents weren’t particularly strict (I saw Jurassic Park in the theater when I was ~8). They just wanted to instill in me from an early age the idea that some things stick with you.

This is not a hard thing to agree with. Anyone who has seen the director’s cut of Requiem For a Dream has had that movie hit them like a sledgehammer to the gut. (It’s an excellent tragedy and one I’ve seen actually about four times because of showing it to other people). You come away changed from media like this, maybe only in the short term, but sometimes for much longer.

And yet as a writer these adjustments can be useful.

Right now I’m working on the second part of being a good writer (reading, the first being writing).

I’ve talked before about using music to set a tone in my head. Sometimes a book is like a good song on the radio, just designed to cheer me up and make me smile. Other times it’s designed to make me think, to consider other ways of constructing narrative, or even directions I can take a story.

I’m reading one such book now The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. I’m actually kind of reading this book by mistake (I had meant to read the first in his Culture science fiction series and ended up reading his first novel instead). The main character of this book has killed three people as a child and is now preparing for a brother who has escaped from an asylum and is heading home for an unknown purpose.

At first glance this book reads like some of the “edgier” YA I had to read in school, things like I Am The Cheese and so forth, but it’s really a good deal cleverer than that. The book sold me with the line “I subtracted Blythe with an adder” (the snake). That combined with a lot of Scottish language and one of the better implementations I’ve seen of both drunk dialog and accent dialog (some together) makes this a book worth reading for me (even if I thought about putting it down many times).

After all the book puts you inside the head of a psychopath. One of the most fascinating parts of the first half of the book has been the slow reveal of how the main character killed each of his (her? this bit’s hard to tell because of some other hints in the story you’ll just have to read to see) victims, and how the character faked the emotions necessary to seem innocent (as a single digit child).

It’s disturbing, and thought provoking, and will probably stay with me for a while. The trick is to figure out how to take disturbing narratives and find the good. And to know when to dive out when you’re not up to it, but also to press on if you’re only feeling a little uneasy.

I’ll definitely be reading more of Banks, hopefully next time on purpose.

Any books like this for you?

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Update: The “Real” Book Experiment

Well it’s been a few weeks and I thought I’d give you a quick update on how it’s been going reading a physical book.

In short, not terribly well.

I’ve had two trips these past couple of weekends, both of which provided ample time for reading. And I did read. I finished Just a Geek on my Nook, and I made some decent progress on The Falcon at the Portal and read a couple of novel samples on the Kindle.

(Speaking of which, somebody’s going to have to convince me The Bone Season is worth slogging through. I couldn’t get past the first ten pages).

A Morbid Taste for Bones was in my bag on both trips, though the first I considered leaving it behind. But, not once did it leave my bag.

Now it has occurred to me that it’s possible that even though I thought the Cadfael was good it might not be what I’m in the mood for right now. It also is possible that I was determined to finish a book on the Nook in particular to justify its purchase (testing the fractal book was a good initial excuse, but eReaders aren’t cheap).

As it happens, I returned a day early from my trip to a friend’s lake house, which gave me ample time to check out the Labor Day 20% off sale at Half Price Books. This is the sale where I trudge the clearance section to get a little more shaved off, or look deeply in the sections I usually skim.

Along the way I found a copy of Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld series book, The Color Of Magic. This is a book I’ve intended to read for a while, and at only a little over $5 for the Kindle, it’s frankly a little surprising I hadn’t bought it already. At Half Price the book was $3.75 and I was genuinely considering not buying it (saving a dollar is nice, but it still seems to be true the book stands a better chance of being read on the Kindle). But with 20% that $3.75 became $3.00.

What a difference $0.75 makes eh?

I’ve dived right into this one, getting about 30 pages in my first day (10% to the eReader crowd). We’ll see if it keeps up, but for the moment I now have two books in my bag.

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