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Musings

Things that are not art- or software-related or written on a trip to the South Pole.



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Moving Day

Wednesday, July 8 2009 2:59 p.m. UTC

Astute followers of this site will notice some changes starting today. After a long effort, the new version of this site is up, along with a new version of npxdesigns.com.

The pages are hosted on a new site using new software I wrote expressly to upgrade some features. More details are available here, with more changes to come. Meanwhile, please let me know if you see anything broken.

Cryptonomikindle

Wednesday, July 8 2009 2:58 a.m. UTC

My Thoughts on the Amazon Kindle

Last week, after a few months of lustful sidelong gazes at the Kindle-pornography which litters almost every corner of Amazon.com, I finally broke down and got one.

I’d seen a few in person and not been even particularly bowled over by them, so I’m not 100% sure why the idea of one was so compelling. Partly it was just the irresistible combination of two of my favorite things — computers and books. Partly it was the dream of having less physical stuff (I scan everything and have a virtually paperless office). Partly it was the idea of being able to travel without the hardcover Pynchon or Stephenson tomes which I am addicted to and typically lug to Antarctica or Madison or Eau Claire or Europe or wherever.

At any rate, I finally pulled the trigger. Less than two days later there was a knock at the door and the friendly UPS woman handed me my surprisingly small box (smaller than I usually get for a regular book delivery from Amazon).

Anyways, let’s jump straight to the good and the bad. We’ll start with the bad:

The Bad

Contrast

The contrast of the display is much worse than ordinary paper — like reading books printed on paper of a middle-grey color, rather than white. This is harder on the eyes, though one can increase font size or read under bright lights to compensate.

Size

I got the Kindle 2 rather than the DX. The 2’s viewing size is almost exactly the size a US passport. I instantly wished I had spent the extra $$$ for the larger DX.

Interface

The Kindle truly is a thing of beauty. The experience of unpackaging the Kindle was an almost sensual pleasure. Jeff Bezos clearly has taken a page from Steve Jobs’s playbook in that respect.

However, the user interface requires a bit more work and more thought on the user’s part than an Apple product or Web site usually does. It feels a bit 'klunky’ to me. Part of this is simply the speed at which the E-ink updates, but part of it is just the slightly odd mix of menus and the tiny little keyboard whose buttons, like the 'next page’ and 'previous page’ buttons, just don’t 'feel perfect’ the way other (Apple) devices do.

The hardware and software interfaces are good overall, but think Amazon has a ways to go in fine-tuning its design.

The Good

Now for the good. There is a lot of good to be had….

Portability

The thing is just so darn small — smaller, even, than the paperbacks I usually lug around if I don’t want to bring a thousand-pager. Though I have yet to take it anywhere out of the house, I am very excited about the possibility of having many of my favorite books always close at hand. The portability feature is important in particular to me because I often read several books concurrently, choosing one or the other based on mood. Having, say, two dozen of my favorite books always within arm’s reach seems like quite a luxury.

Style

Though, as stated above, the industrial design has a ways to go, the thing is truly beautiful to look at. Part of this is the always-on black-and-white screen with the “screen-saver”-like images of important literary figures which come on when your Kindle goes to sleep. I have always liked monochrome displays, and have fond memories going way back to the original Apple Macintoshes and the Lisp workstations that kicked around the basement of the Computer Science building at UW-Madison where I hung out during my freshman year of college.

While I know that some people are screaming for color Kindles, I hope the E-ink folks drag their feet on this particular improvement (I’d take better contrast over color any day).

Whispernet

The ability to wirelessly access the Amazon store 24/7 free of charge is a dangerous and seductive feature. I bought a couple of books while lying in bed taking a break from the one I was reading. They truly do download almost instantly (I almost felt the thud when the entire thousand-page bolus of Cryptonomicon landed on my digital lap).

Even better is the feature which lets you try the first several pages of a book for free. I generally have a pretty good idea whether or not I like a book after reading just a few pages (typically more pages than I feel comfortable reading while standing around in a bookstore). I probably will try to preview most of the (new) books I buy this way from now on.

Battery

The charge lasts for days; with the wireless turned off, it seems to just go and go and go.

The Mixed

DRM

There are some things I haven’t made up my mind about yet. One is the eventual disposition or fate of the bits which I am purchasing. I was grateful when iTunes ditched (most of) its Digital Rights Management (DRM) — I know I can take my music where ever I want, even if Apple 'Microsoft’s itself into the next Evil Empire, or we all get MP3 brain implants, or whatever. I know my physical books will continue to work so long as I can afford to house them. I have no idea what will happen to my Kindle books when Amazon gets bought by Google or when someone else (cough…Apple…cough) does the e-book thing even better.

(I’m currently re-reading Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon on the Kindle — kind of interesting or ironic, given the book’s unifying theme of cryptography as a significant force in the world… DRM being essentially an application of cryptography.)

Format

The small size works OK for novels, but for technical books with lots of code samples and/or diagrams it seems somewhat unusable. For a small fee, you can email yourself PDFs and they will appear on your Kindle, but most of the formatting of technical PDFs is pretty badly munged.

I don’t see Kindle-like devices dipping into the market for art books (which are what I tend to buy when I’m not getting novels or technical books) for quite awhile.

Selection

I am ecstatic that virtually the entire Stephenson opus is available for Kindle. Most of William Gibson’s and Richard K. Morgan’s are, too. However, none of Pynchon is, nor are my favorite Haruku Murakami or Ursula LeGuin novels. There is very little Stanislaw Lem either. Generally, it seems, the more esoteric the novel, the less likely it will be available for the Kindle at present, though the numbers will probably improve as the device continues to become more popular.

There are plenty of dharma (Buddhist) books available but sadly very little Pema Chödrön or Chogyam Trungpa. I imagine that will change, especially for Pema Chödrön who seems to be pretty popular.

Of course, many (most?) out-of-print books will not be Kindle-ized. (While my enthusiasm for the new technology may not be shared by this bookseller, who happens to be one of my best and oldest friends, I know we both agree that physical books and their purveyors are, and should remain, an important part of the culture of knowledge. It will be interesting to see what the impact of electronic books is on the book market as a whole, a market which has already shifted violently in half a dozen ways due to online commerce, the blogosphere, competing forms of entertainment, etc.)

Price

The Kindle itself is about $370 US $300 US. The books range from free for many classics (there are a huge number of free books courtesy of Project Gutenberg here) to almost the same price as the physical book (for technical books, in particular). I’m guessing the median e-book price is roughly 60% of the price of the physical equivalent, for most books I’m likely to read.

This raises the question of what the #&#^!@ is that money paying for? I think most of it is pure profit for Amazon and/or the original publishers. The shipping cost is virtually nothing (a few hundred kB over the cell network). There is no materials cost and virtually no packaging cost (conversion of the book to their electronic format). The buyer already pays the cost to make the device. I have heard that the authors get only the same royalties that they do for dead-tree books. Amazon has also been raising some of their prices for Kindle books. It seems like a good business model for Amazon until some real competition comes around.

In the mean time, the good news is that many books I’d ordinarily buy (or bought!) in hardcover for $25 are avalable for only six bucks or so for the Kindle — I think they figure that once it’s out in paperback, they have to undersell the paperback price.

Hackability

It hasn’t escaped me that the thing I am holding on my lap is not a pile of inert, sliced and dried dead tree slurry, but rather something with RAM, flash memory, a CPU, and a network interface — in other words, something to be programmed and played with (hacked). It is easy to get distracted by the toy-like aspect of it (gee, what are the shortcuts here? Can I get a shell prompt? What are the APIs?). I don’t have that problem with dead-tree books. So far it hasn’t been too problematic but I can see it might become irritating, especially at the end of a day already spent hacking.

Just In (the nick of) Time

One thing about e-books in general that intrigues me is what it does for self-publishing. Previously, having a book published meant acquiring a complicated and unwieldy relationship with a publisher who was willing to bet that your text would sell enough physical books to make it worth their while. That has been changing, with services which will publish with little or no minimum volume, and various how-to books on the same topic. I recently bought 37 Signal’s Getting Real (a must read for Web developers and programmers of all stripes), sold through Lulu.com and printed and delivered just-in-time. I was amazed at how, well, actually book-like the thing that arrived in my mailbox actually was.

The Kindle, and digital readers like it, further lower the bar on this sort of thing (if you don’t like Amazon’s distribution model you can always make a PDF or AZW file and sell copies of that on your own Web site for people to upload to their readers).

Interfaces Matter

Reading text on a computer screen sucks. Too, computers have an endless capacity to distract (particularly for geeks) which is antithetical to the absorptive process of reading deeply. It is interesting to me that with a few changes in emphasis: – simple controls – always-on, non-flickering, non-backlit, black-on-“white” display – long battery life
the Kindle doesn’t suck for reading the way its brethren do, yet still affords the main advantages of digital media (most significantly, portability).

So there you have it — the good, the bad, the ever-so-slightly ugly. Overall, I’m still intrigued by the Kindle, warts and all, and excited by the possibilities — after all, it really is about the words, the craft of language, and the excitement of reading, which this gadget delivers in new ways, the implications of which will probably take some time to fully puzzle out.

Meanwhile, back to Cryptonomicon ....

Postscript

It’s now three weeks later, and I have a few followup comments.

Though I haven’t measured it, I think I’ve been reading about 2-3 times more than usual since I got the Kindle, both e-books and, oddly, physical books. My tendency to time-slice between multiple books seems to resonate well with the Kindle’s ability to store many books at once and to remember where you are in each of them.

I have gotten used to the design quirks and the poor contrast of the device. I have also come to really enjoy the 'clipping’ feature of the device, wherein you can clip quotes from a book and retrieve them at will. I still stand by my previous remarks, though.

In today’s New Yorker, one of my favorite authors, Nicholson Baker, echoes many of my points and makes several new ones (much more eloquently and humorously than I did — also don’t miss the followup discussion). Baker is a sensualist of the book and of printed newspapers, as well as of many more things (The Mezzanine and The Fermata are two of my favorite books, alas not yet available for the Kindle), and the critique of reading on the Kindle as a less-than-optimally-sensually-pleasurable experience comes across very strongly in the article. While I agree with most of his points and took delight in his presentation of them, it doesn’t really change my enthusiasm for and curiosity about this new way of delivering the written word.

The fact that it’s got me reading more doesn’t suck, either.

Current or recent reads:

  • Fabrice Midal, “Chögyam Trungpa — His Life And Vision” (physical)
  • Ursula LeGuin, “A Wizard of Earthsea” (physical)
  • Neal Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon” (physical, e-book)
  • Charles Stross, “Saturn’s Children” (e-book)
  • Joan Duncan Oliver (ed.), “Commit to Sit: Tools for Cultivating a Meditation Practice” (e-book)
  • William Gibson, “Neuromancer” (e-book)
  • Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (e-book)
  • Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture” (e-book)
  • Chris Anderson, “Free” (e-book)

PPS: Customer Service

Last week, after emerging from the train in Hyde Park into a bright sunny day, I headed home reading the Kindle while I walked, like the ubiquitous spaced-out U of C students strewn throughout the neighborhood. As I walked and marveled in the contrast afforded by the sunlight, I noticed the contrast beginning to fade, at first slowly and then dramatically with each turn of the 'page,’ as though the words were written in invisible ink with the invisibility kicking in. Apparently the issue has occurred with other Kindles.

I called Amazon and had a replacement the next day with return shipping paid for the original.

The new device did not fade in the sun. However, it was ever so slightly less crisp than my first one. Not really noticeable once you’d started reading, but I felt like I enjoyed reading a little bit less on it. I thought about it for several days and decided to ship back the replacement rather than the original (I don’t read out in the sun very much, whether dead-tree-books e-books). I gave them a call, though, and they said they would ship me a third device. I have to say I am quite impressed with their customer service. Each time they answered with a real person in less than sixty seconds, offered to replace the device with minimal hassle, via express shipping. Based on past experiences I find it laughable to contemplate receiving similar service from most of the other large companies I have dealt with.

Ya hear me, folks? Customer service matters.

PPPS: Can’t buy Kindle books for someone else!

It’s Mom’s birthday today — Happy Birthday Mom!!! I thought she might enjoy “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, which is available on the Kindle (hopefully she will get her gift before she reads this). But it turns out you can’t buy a Kindle book for another Kindle owner. I’m not talking about buying it for yourself and then giving it to someone else (easy enough to do with a DTB — Dead Tree Book). But they have no mechanism set up for buying a gift for someone short of just giving them a gift card. There’s nothing wrong with gift cards but sometimes you want to get a little more specific. This seems like a serious lapse on their part, unless I’m missing some strange aspect to their business logic.

Where Are Our Alien Friends?

Saturday, May 9 2009 midnight UTC

In an age when the dizzying progress of science and technology is pushing our world onto progressively gnarlier trajectories, do you ever wonder where exactly it’s going to lead us?

The two questions in science which interest me the most are perhaps not even scientific: (1) is there anybody else out there? (“Where Are Our Alien Friends?”) and (2) can one make a machine which thinks and communicates 'like we do’?

It occurred to me this morning, while reading about Eurisko, that maybe the two questions are related.

Space is so big, and things like spacecraft and light travel so slowly, that most astronomy consists of looking back in time and our chances of physically going to distant places in our Universe are pretty slim. No evidence in physics for faster-than-light travel has surfaced and, in fact, one thing you learn early on when studying physics is that if anything could travel that fast, it could violate causality, introduce time travel, and all sorts of nasty contradictions would ensue. My suspicion is that “warp drive” is not in the picture, for anyone.

And, if someone 'out there’ did solve the problem, where are they? Why do we see no evidence of them? (Never mind the fact that, between Dark Matter and Dark Energy, we can only 'see’ a very small fraction of the matter/energy in the Universe — the rest of existence is still pretty murky territory for us.) One possibility, of course, is that some intelligent civilizations blow themselves up with nukes, or bioweapons, or…., which is certainly an option for us as well. But do all civilizations come to such an end?

Which brings me to the second question, that of Artificial Intelligence… not just AI, but also the question of what happens when our nascent abilities to alter our own form and that of other organisms mature.

My work keeps me so steeped in computer technology that it can be hard to see how fast things evolve (just as a parent who lives with her children may not see their rapid growth as clearly as occasionally-visiting grandparents do), but as someone who was born to the sound of shuffling punch cards and the chirring of mainframes (Dad worked at IBM and my brother and I used to make flip-books out of the punch cards he brought home), I occasionally look back with slight sense of vertigo at how far we’ve come in my own lifetime. I am not as close to biology as to the physical sciences, but I understand things are moving even faster there.

Trends ranging from 3D graphics in games and other virtual worlds, to virtualization of computer systems inside of large (and small) data centers, to robotics, prosthetics, stem cell research, and so on make me wonder if the Final Frontier for any intelligence is not the physical exploration of space but the transformation from organic/biological to informational entities. If it takes too long to travel to other worlds, why not just make them, and live in them?

This brings me to my final, and ultimately wholly speculative question — what is the ultimate fate of consciousness in a world where the vehicle of consciousness can be transformed at will? Will consciousness remain (seemingly) separate, as it is in humans (and animals…?), or will it merge into One Consciousness? One sees hints of this not just in Buddhism but in other (many? most?) religions. The mind can be trained (or untrained?) to experience the world in such a way that distinctions betweeen 'self’ and 'other’ grow transparent and fall away. I wonder, then, if civilizations which self-transform to progressively newer and richer states of virtual experience, ultimately demonstrate collectively that which some human individuals have gotten glimpses of throughout history. Perhaps the fates of other civilizations among the stars have already taken them to that ultimate place… and when we arrive there, we will recognize them as ourselves.

Followup: this presentation by Phillip Rosedale at TED touches on the connection between exploration of outer space and virtual worlds. Oddly, I saw this video just a few days after writing the above.

Second followup: am reading Kurtzweil’s “Approaching the Singularity” which sweeps across some of this territory as well.

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