You are getting nerdy…

Oh, Look. A New Distraction.

Why must you tempt my brain in these ways, internet?

Andre Michelle has created a tone matrix that is entirely too much fun to play around with.  Give it a try.  If you’re not addicted within minutes, then you either lack any sense of rhythm, or simply hate fun.


October 23, 2009 Posted by | Music, Random, Technology | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ebooks: The End of Civilised Reading

According to this very clear and entirely unbiased article, we are on the verge of a cultural holocaust.  As the electronic book gains in popularity, the traditional paper book will be inexorably wiped out of existence, taking all the value of human achievement with it and leaving our society drained of all meaning.  We will live in a media reich in which all culture will be scrubbed soulless and trapped in the plastic shell of electronic delivery.  Already, devotees of print media are looked down upon as social anachronisms, clinging to a destructive and worthless medium!

Did that sound a little crazy?  Maybe more than a little.

If Alan Kaufman is to be believed, the rise of the ebook is equivalent to Nazi Germany, Christian expansion and 9/11 all rolled into one.  I assume his article was intended to convince readers to spurn the ebook and hold fast to the holy grail of printed paper.  It succeeded, in my case, at convincing me that even the most banal of subjects can be made outrageous by someone whose grasp of reality is best described as “neglected”.  But no amount of apocalyptic wording or comparisons to cultural upheavals and human atrocity will alter the inherent flaws in the article.

From the first, Kaufman makes entirely baseless assumptions.  Yes, numerous small bookstores have closed down in recent years.  That is difficult to credibly deny.  Kaufman’s association of this phenomenon with the development of the ebook is not so irrefutable.  Small bookstores are closing because of big bookstores.  Amazon.com certainly contributes to this, but the vast majority of their book sales are still in printed form.  Frankly, ebooks have barely begun to catch on, and are nowhere near the ubiquity needed to have a drastic impact on the book market.

The article goes on to make its connection between ebooks and Hitler by calling print media “the despised Jew of our culture”.  That’s certainly a compelling bit of phraseology there, but can Kaufman back it up?  I don’t know if he believes he can, because he seems content to let his alarmist proclamations speak for themselves.  Whatever he believes, the reality is that he’s pulling this idea out of his ass.  Books are not a cultural outcast, at least not in the sense to which Kaufman is referring.  Certainly, there is a small subculture of early Kindle devotees who believe that print media should immediately be supplanted and fade into history.  To keep the Godwin theme going, there is also a small subculture of people who believe Hitler was right.  I will concede that these groups do have one thing in common: they do not represent society in any significant way.

There are times when I feel the art of the book is threatened on a cultural level.  This feeling is brought on not by new technology, but by a cultural trend that, as a bookseller, I can’t help noticing on a daily basis.  We live in a society that does not value its literacy.  In this, our enlightened first world, there are people who disdain reading as an unpleasant chore to be completed only when necessary.  Note, this disdain is directed not at the printed page, but at the act of reading itself.  I could rant for hours about this particular problem, but that’s a post for another day.  The point here is that where Kaufman sees a cultural aversion to books and blames the ebook, I see the same and attribute it to a much deeper problem of anti-intellectualism in popular culture.

Kaufman goes on to blame the market for the supposed downfall of the book, claiming that the more people buy ebooks, the fewer people buy print books.  That much is true.  As more people purchase ebooks, sales of printed material will likely decline.  And I agree that this will eventually happen.  I don’t see it happening in the next ten years, however, and there is certainly no noticeable sign of it now.  He is correct that publishers see books as a profit-venue first and artistic expression second if at all.  This explains why Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are bestsellers while some of the best writers you’ll ever read labour on in obscurity.  Selling to the lowest common denominator is a surefire way to maximise profit.  When the lowest common denominator accepts the Kindle, I can see some sort of visible shift occurring.  That hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will happen soon.  The human mob has always been resistant to change.

A summary of the paragraphs above: Small bookstores are closing because they cannot compete with larger businesses, not because electronic books are impacting book sales.  Literature has fallen to the fringe of pop culture because people would rather watch TV than read, not because ebooks are forcing paper into obsolescence.  Publishers are in it to make money, which results in truly terrible but marketable books getting more love than good books that won’t reach a large demographic, but has no impact on the print vs. electronic argument.

Now that we’ve clarified the ways in which Mr. Kaufman is wrong, I would like to take a moment to explain why this article bothers me.  Clearly, the writer has a problem with ebooks.  Based on his choice of wording, I would say he has a monumental problem with them.  As one nears the end of his article, it becomes clear that the agenda is personal.  He considers printed books to be “sacred”, and integral to culture.  According to Kaufman, as soon as books are transferred to an electronic medium, they lose all cultural value.  Therein lies one of my two problems.

What is so important about paper?  At the moment, I would rather buy a printed book than read an ebook, but that’s because I find reading off of a computer screen uncomfortable, and am uninterested in spending however many hundred dollars it would take to buy an ebook reader.  The problem with ebooks right now is one of practicality and convenience, not of morality.  If a book is read electronically instead of on a page, is the content affected in any way?  No.  You might not enjoy reading ebooks, but don’t use the content to excuse your disdain for the medium.  It is naive at best and deceitful at worst.

The other, more obvious problem with the article is the repeated use of alarmist comparisons, to fascism, terrorism and unpopular history, to inflate the perceived problem.  I cannot, with a straight face, compare ebooks to the Third Reich.  To call this embryonic technological movement “a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions” is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, and I find it insulting that the writer apparently thinks we will simply accept these statements and be appropriately terrified.  Far worse is the realisation that, somewhere on the internet, there are readers impressionable enough to believe Kaufman’s claims without seeking to verify them.  Even if we are not all foolish enough to jump on this particular alarmist bandwagon, someone will be, and Kaufman seems content to exploit that credulity if it means people will agree with his narrow and poinless ideal.

So, Alan Kaufman, you are at best either an idiot or a self-important jackass who would manipulate the gullible and small minded to gain a following.  At worst, you are both.  If asked for my opinion, I would suggest the latter.

October 20, 2009 Posted by | Books, Rant, Technology | , , , , | 8 Comments

The Friendly Bookseller Recommends: John Dies at the End

While loading up a cartful of books to put on the shelves today, I came across a surprising new arrival: the freshly released hardcover edition of John Dies at the End, by David Wong, published by St. Martin’s Press.  I wasn’t surprised that the book was out; I knew it was coming; I was surprised to see it in hardcover, with arguably some of the best cover design I’ve ever seen on a horror title.  This is not to say that John Dies at the End is not deserving of such treatment, but writers, like most creative fields, rarely get what they deserve.  The industry makes its decisions based on perceived market value, rather than creative value.  Some of the best written work the world has ever seen may languish in obscurity, never seeing release in any release beyond the cheapest format, while formulaic shit that may or may not be worth the paper it’s printed on gets media-hyped hardcover release and an “Oprah’s Book Club” stamp.

That is, hopefully, all of the ranting I will do in this post.  My surprise at the sight of John Dies at the End in gorgeous (if somewhat horrific) hardcover was the pleasant sort.  David Wong is not a Dan Brown or a Stephenie Meyer.  He doesn’t have a fistful of successful titles to prop up his latest release.  As far as I’m aware, John Dies at the End is Wong’s first book.  First time genre fiction authors do not get hardcovers.  They do not get top-dollar cover design.  They do not get ordered by the dozen by bookstores.  But David Wong has gotten all of these things, despite being a horror author (comedic horror, no less) without another title to his name.  So what’s different?  What makes Wong so special?  For the answer, we look at the book itself, and the not-entirely-unique but still remarkable history of John Dies at the End.

It did not begin as a book.  It began in 2001 as an online serial, freely available for anyone to read.  I remember reading the first chapter in 2007, never getting any further due to my aversion to reading lengthy works on a screen.  Wong edited the serial into a manuscript in 2004, but it wasn’t actually released in print until 2007, and then only via small press.  Small press and self published releases don’t tend to get a lot of attention in the vast and terrible book market of today.  This, however, is what makes Wong’s work special.  John Dies at the End was read by tens of thousands of people before it ever saw release in print.  When it became available on Amazon via Permuted Press, there was an audience already waiting.  According to Wikipedia, by the time the free online version was removed in fall of 2008, it had been read by 70,000 people.  That kind of number is hard not to notice.  St. Martin’s Press noticed first, apparently.

I’m not terribly familiar with St. Martin’s.  A quick perusal of their author lists brings up a few familiar names, including thriller writer Faye Kellerman, fantasy author Caitlin Kittredge, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Yes, those are all from the Ks.  Larry King was in there too.  Now, I don’t know if St. Martin’s approached Wong, or if it was the other way around, but they clearly saw fit to give him a chance.  Not only did they give him a chance, they gave John Dies at the End A-list treatment, at least as far as publication standards.  I haven’t heard any particular hype attached to the book, but there’s only so much we can ask.  Regardless, in my admittedly short time in the industry, I have never seen anything like this.  It may not be unprecedented, but it’s certainly rare.  And it all began online.

For the past several years, there has been constant discussion regarding the value of the internet for the publication and promotion of creative work.  Many have tried to do what David Wong accomplished.  Most have failed, and a few have taken this as an indicator that the advent of internet culture has done little to impact the publication industry.  The impressive journey of John Dies at the End; from humble internet serial, to small press paperback, to legitimate, money-making hardcover; is proof that the web is the creative and promotional tool we always hoped it would be.  As a writer, you can use it to bring your work to audiences you could never have dreamed of without it.  That is, if you use it right.  David Wong did, and he’s got the fancy book to prove it.

Addendum: With all that talk about what John Dies at the End has accomplished, I’ve failed to say anything about the book itself.  I haven’t read beyond the first chapter yet, but what I have read so far is excellent.  The prose is razor sharp, and the narrative is darkly witty.  It is as disturbing as it is hilarious.  From first impressions, I can definitely recommend this book.

John Dies at the End at mcnallyrobinson.com

September 30, 2009 Posted by | Books, Fiction, Ramble, Technology | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Toy For The Trend Resistant

I was a latecomer to the Mp3 bandwagon. My first gizmo was a generation 2 iPod Nano, purchased for me in September of 2006. Even then, I didn’t wholeheartedly join the flock. What use had I for these newfangled video iPods? 4 gigs was plenty of space for my music, and I saw no reason to venture into the territory of those multimedia monstrosities.

More than a year later, my iPod was starting to show its age. Battery life was gradually getting shorter, and 4 gigs didn’t seem like that much to me anymore. It was around this time that a friend of mine introduced me to a little-known brand called Archos. I was immediately interested. Not only was this product cheaper by the pound than an Apple product, it was shiny. I immediately resolved to acquire one as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” proved to be several months away. I am not renowned for my affluence, nor for my money managing skills. And so it wasn’t until I got my tax return for 2007 that I could get my hands on one of these shiny gizmos. Three hundred and some-odd dollars at Best Buy later (Best Buy jacks the price of the Archos for some reason), and the Archos 605 Wifi became mine two weeks ago.

Technologically speaking, this thing is pretty much a handheld computer. I got the 30 gig model, but the 605 goes up to 160. It still blows my mind that they can make a pocket sized device with a hard drive the size of my computer. It comes with all the bells and whistles, too. Music player, file storage, wifi, video player, browser….okay, most of the bells and whistles. Here’s my first complaint about the Archos, and really the only major one. After buying the device itself, I had to shell out another $50 for a video plug-in and web browser. It made the original price of the Archos seem deceptive. The added cost, however, wasn’t a deal breaker.

Price is a big selling point for the Archos, if one is comparing it against its most obvious competitor, the iPod Touch. Even after the above-mentioned software costs, my total cost for the 30 gig Archos was about $420 after tax, or $375 without tax. That’s only about $6 more than Best Buy charges for the 16 gig version of the iPod touch. To get an iPod with the same functions and hard drive space as my Archos you would need to spend $500 plus tax. By sacrificing brand-name appeal, I got nearly twice the bang for my buck. For a poor bastard like me, that’s a big deal.

Aesthetically speaking, the Archos isn’t going to make everyone happy. It’s big, about 4.5 x 3.5 inches, and it’s got some weight to it. The good news is that most of this surface area is taken up by the 4×3 inch screen. The downside is that it’s not that easy to carry around if you don’t have a bag or a jacket pocket to stick it in. This doesn’t bother me all that much, since I tend to wear a jacket no matter what the weather’s like, but some people might pass it up for a more conveniently sized device. The Archos’s design is very techno-traditional. Shiny silver metal and plastic in a shape that makes it look like a tiny television. I know I’m not the only one who finds the simple, substance over style approach appealing. With the Archos I feel like I’m holding an actual piece of technology, whereas the iPod feels like a slick, expensive toy.

Where it fails to beat the iPod is in the controls. Apple has something of a reputation for intuitive, easy to use control interfaces. The Archos doesn’t quite meet that standard. It’s easy enough to get used to the button layout, but the touch screen interface could be better. The touch screen controls are, in most cases, a bit on the small side. I might just be unaccustomed to the whole touch thing, but I found some of the buttons hard to select even with a stylus. When I have a choice between the touch screen and the buttons on the side of the device, I tend to go with the buttons.

This review takes an unexpected twist in the face of circumstance, as my Archos decided it was too beautiful for this world a couple of days ago. The operating system has gone kerfucken, and as a result I was granted an opportunity to give the company’s technical support and customer service a cursory evaluation. I chose the email route for tech support, and got a response in less than two hours. Not bad, but let’s see how many hoops they put me through. Rather than make me go through every possible combination of troubleshooting methods (which I had already tried), Tony the friendly tech support guy took the information I gave him and drew the obvious conclusion: my shiny gizmo had transmuted into a shiny brick. He immediately hooked me up with the necessary RMA information to get the thing repaired or replaced, as needed. All I need to do is find my way around the returning process (my two and a half years working for FedEx will prove helpful here), and probably pay for the return. Could be worse.

As I was going through this process, an unsettling thought occurred to me: what about the software I paid for? Will I still have that if the device needs to be replaced, or will they take the opportunity to fleece me out of another $50? Time to give customer service a call.

A relevant digression: I spent three years working at a customer service call center (See above, re: FedEx), and as such I am intimately familiar with the inner workings of that industry. In other words, I know exactly how bad customer service can be. Any time I have to call a customer service line, I brace for the worst. This time, my suffering was minimal. I was only on hold for maybe three minutes, and the gentleman who finally took my call didn’t give me any kind of runaround. If my device is repaired or replaced, any software I bought will be loaded onto the new/fixed product, and I should give them a call when I get it back just to make sure. I asked, he answered, no unnecessary bullshit.

To summarise, the Archos 605 is a better-than-decent product. It earns high marks for technology and price, but gets dinged for unnecessary extra costs and less-than-perfect interface. Aesthetically, you’ll either love it or hate it, but I love it, so it gets points there. Tech support and customer service are surprisingly good, based on first impression, but time will tell how that all works out. In the end, if you’re looking to buck the Apple trend, but still want a quality product, I would definitely recommend the Archos.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Technology | 2 Comments