January, 2010


30
Jan 10

Daemon, Freedom (TM), by Daniel Suarez

  

Since I read this two book series back-to-back (in about a week and a half — have been home sick), I figure it’s okay to post about both of them together. I first read about Daemon on Joi’s blog, and it sounded interesting enough to give a try.  

[Semi-spoilers below. If you like cyberspace thrillers, you probably want to read these — and could probably go without the following paragraphs.]

Anyway, I liked them both a lot — probably Daemon a little more than Freedom (TM). They’re sort of a mix between Fight Club and World of Warcraft, with maybe some Blade Runner thrown in — lots of great ideas, lots of real implications of the technologies we all use constantly.

I will say that Daemon is the first novel I’ve ever read that included the syntax for a SQL injection attack on a web site — but maybe that’s just me. ­čÖé

There’s a lot of technical jargon for fiction, and lots of solid ideas about how technology works and what the future could hold — and clearly researched extremely well.

Anyway, they’re a fun couple of books — if you’re wondering what World of Warcraft grafted onto our own everyday world might look like, these are a great place to start. (That particular part gets a lot more pronounced in the second book.)


28
Jan 10

Cooper’s Virgil

I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately — obviously because of the developments of eBooks, but also because I’ve been home sick the past few days, reading as I get better, and just generally around all my books more of the time.

I happened to walk by a shelf in our living room filled with books from our family — mostly older books, and mostly from my dad’s mother (she was always “Grandmother” to me). When she died, I inherited a number of her Latin books, since I really loved learning Latin, and it was something that was important to her, too. For whatever reason, I picked one up off the shelf today — Cooper’s Virgil — an annotated collection of the writing of Virgil (who wrote The Aeneid, among other things).

Just picking it up, a million different things came up in my mind. Some reverence for how old it is. Fondness for the Latin work and friends I had in high school. Memories of Grandmother, always teaching, and pretty often whipping me in double solitaire, which I’m starting to teach SPL now.

Here’s the back cover page (you can click through to see it bigger):

Now the first thing you’ll notice is that the book is old. It looks like Gussie Raysor acquired it (or just signed it) on May 26, 1895, just about 115 years ago now.

Think of that. 1895 was when the first movie projector was patented. Queen Victoria was still alive, and Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t yet President of the United States. The Ford Motor Company wouldn’t be founded for another 8 years.

The next thing that I noticed was the name at the top — Laura Lilly — who is definitely not my grandmother, but instead was her sister-in-law — my grandfather’s sister. So that’s a little bit of humor there. I guess my grandfather stole the book from his sister (although I have to say that I can’t really imagine him giving much of a damn about Latin — unless it was some sort of prank, which I can imagine him caring about), and then the book got absorbed into Grandmother’s collection (given her love of language and learning and books, not too surprising). Gussie Raysor was my grandfather’s mother.

And so through this artifact that I’ve moved around several times over the past couple of decades, and that surely frustrated any number of Lillys as they tried to learn their declensions and conjugations and gerunds — through this simple artifact, a connection across the years was made. And with real impact and emotion in the present day.

That is a hell of a thing. It’s just really astonishing in simplicity and power.

Now, I’m not very nostalgic about books, I have to say. I thought I would be — I thought I’d miss their paper & binding shape with the advent of eBooks. But I really don’t — not at all, honestly. I prefer, in most cases, to read books on my Kindle now — which tells me, as I’ve written elsewhere, that what I really love is reading, not the physical forms themselves.

Still:

There’s something about physical artifacts that reaches across the ages. As I look around my own house and think about what objects with meaning will persist and SPL’s grandchildren will look at a hundred years from now, I’m not sure there are very many at all. There are lots of electronic artifacts, like this blog, even, if we can manage to keep them alive and safe from inevitable(?) bit-rot. But precious few things that will make it through the childhoods and moves and marriages and storms and whatever else that the next 100 years will bring.

So I’m glad to have these books of my grandmother’s with me. They mean something and they change who I am and how I experience the world because they’re here with me. And it’s probably time to think a little bit not in the backwards direction, but in the forwards direction, about what we want people to reflect over a hundred years hence.


28
Jan 10

Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin

I think it’s a little too early to really understand the history, and certainly the implications, of the financial crisis that we’ve all been going through over the past 2 years. But I’m quite interested in the actual people who were (and are) involved, and understanding the decisions they made, and as much as I can about how those decisions felt to them.

Sorkin’s book is very useful in that regard — he clearly had outstanding access to most of the important players, and a good sense of the relationships between them. The book is a little bit too long, I think, and reads a little like a breathy soap opera in places, but seems to me that it will be the definitive contemporary accounting of the events of 2007 and 2008, if not the definitive history.

If you’re interested in this subject at all, I’d highly recommend the book — it caused me to have a number of “a ha!” moments and helped my understanding of the system. It’s also created a bit of contempt in me for the bankers and policy makers who were involved — but it’s only one accounting, so I’m inclined to learn a lot more.


27
Jan 10

Reading

In the main, this isn’t a post about the iPad, although there’s a bunch of relevance there, and the conclusion mostly is about the iPad.

I’ve been experimenting with different reading form factors for digital books over the last few weeks — I’ve of course had my various Kindles (Kindlii?) for a couple of years now, and have basically come to love them. I’ve read maybe a hundred books, at least a couple of over a thousand pages, and would not trade it. It is decidedly not a perfect device, and is…what’s the word?…oh, right: ugly. But it gets a lot right for the way that I use it.

But I’ve also been experimenting with reading on my iPhone (via the Kindle app) and on my laptop (again, via the Kindle app) — and I’ve written about some of my early experience in that mode. And when I say “experimenting,” what I mean is that I’ve been reading whole, long form books on it. When I went to Austin a couple of weeks ago, I intentionally didn’t bring my Kindle, preferring to try traveling without it.

And I’ve been trying to read longer chapters and parts of books on my laptop, through the Kindle application for Windows.

So the first conclusion is one that I’ve made before: it’s having your book content in the cloud that really makes the big difference. Being able to read your books on any screen that you happen to have with you is the thing that matters.

But beyond that, I’m finding that I’m a more capable and thoughtful reader when I use the Kindle, as opposed to the other devices. It’s a little hard to explain, but I can maintain a certain stillness and focus when I’m using the Kindle that I haven’t been able to achieve when reading on the iPhone or laptop — I find that on those 2 devices, I’m a little fidgety, and my mind tends to wander towards all the other things I can do on them. My retention isn’t as good as it is when I’m reading on the Kindle itself, and my attention span isn’t as long.

I think there are a few factors here:

  • The backlit LED screens just really are not as good for your eyes for reading text. There’s a dynamism to the letters from the lighting, I think, that makes it a little harder for me to focus on the letterforms. And I have this feeling that my eyes get fatigued much more quickly with backlit screens.
  • For the iPhone, the screen is just too small to read books without feeling like they have a million pages. So every book feels super long. It’s sort of like reading e-mail on your phone — you always find yourself thinking “holy cow, this is a long note” and then when you look at it on your laptop, you discover it was only a couple of lines.
  • For both the iPhone and laptop, I think I have different mental associations about what I do with them — so I found myself switching back and forth between apps quite a lot — which of course took me out of the flow of the book.
  • The laptop sucks in all sorts of ways for long form reading. There’s a keyboard between me & the screen, for example. The pixel density isn’t all that great. Just to name a couple.
  • The screen on my Kindle is clean. I am pretty fanatical about keeping my Kindle screen free of gunk — I really don’t touch it at all, and am careful about wiping it off when I need to. I’m also a little neurotic (shocking, I know), about keeping my phone (whether iPhone or Nexus One) clean, but there’s always a layer of grime on there, just because I manipulate the UI with my fingers constantly. [New learning: this is doubly gross when you’re home sick. Gah.] Even with the extremely cool oleophobic screens that Apple has created, my iPhone is just grimy.
  • The last thing is the battery life — I usually don’t leave the wireless on for my Kindle, which results in something like 3 weeks of actual use in battery life. I just don’t ever worry about whether it’ll run out or not. With the iPhone, I can’t usually get more than about 13 hours — so when I fly, I’m jealous about how I use it, and I’ve got battery meters running in my head regarding how to keep it charged.

I’m the first to recognize that I’m not all that typical a reader — the volume of text I consume, whether long form like text, micro form like twitter, or article length like the web, is pretty high. And I read as much for pleasure as I do for work.

But for me, the Kindle is the must-have device for reading, with the iPhone app a very nice-to-have that I use sometimes, and the laptop really as an only occasional use device — it’ll get better when they introduce searching and cataloging, but won’t ever be primary.

Now, I don’t know how that will change, for me, with the advent of the iPad. First off, I’ll very likely get one — this isn’t about that, it’s about whether I’ll read most books on it. I think they’ve done a number of very nice things in the user experience on it, and it looks like a more intimate media device than I’ve ever seen, really.

[As an aside, I noticed a ton of UI elements that seemed bizarre. A wood grain bookshelf actually in the graphics? Showing the pages and the bindings of the books? The spiral tab in the date book? Weird throwbacks to already out-of-date physical forms — I guess intended to be for the metaphor bridge for the mass market, but still weird.]

It’s a little hard to tell until I get to read longer books on an iPad, but I don’t think it’s going to be the book-reading device for me.

I think it will be exceptional for many other things, and for people who don’t read as many books, or mostly read shorter form material, it’s going to be very worth paying the additional money to get the functionality over the Kindle. In other words, for people for whom reading is an occasional activity, or for just a few minutes a day, I think the iPad and devices like it will be fine.

I have a nagging suspicion that it will continue the erosion of our ability to read long form books, and actually to make long form arguments — with our politics and our marketing and everything else turning into snippets, I think that’s not such a great thing. But I recognize that’s a curmudgeony attitude.

I just get the feeling that the ability to watch movies and listen to music and swipe pictures around, etc etc, on a device that is people’s primary way to also consume books, will mean that the relative time spent reading will go down.

Some other random thoughts:

  • It’s good to have more readers in the market — I think that will help everyone.
  • I’m very glad they chose a relatively standard format — ePub — that’s a great thing, even though it includes DRM. But I trust the DRM will go away over time.
  • Having said that, the extent of a book catalog shows itself very quickly. There’s a huge difference, for real readers, between catalogs that have the bestsellers and more comprehensive ones. The Amazon Kindle catalog is quite comprehensive at this point — I only run into about 1 in every 5 books that I want that I can’t get.
  • Pretty disappointed in the connectors on the iPad — am really tired of the iPhone connector, and wish they would move to micro USB like everyone else on the planet.
  • I can’t figure out why the early hands-on reviewers thought the virtual keyboard was going to feel great — totally flat keyboards have never felt great. That may not matter, but I thought it was a weird expectation.

Over time, I’d expect the technology in both the Kindle and the iPad to get a lot cheaper — I have a feeling that we may carry around more than one, since they’ll be pretty slim and easy to throw into a bag. But we’ll see.

For now, for me, I’ll keep reading on my Kindle for the foreseeable future, even while swiping around on the iPad for more dynamic content.


26
Jan 10

Flaky

I’ve been very flaky over the last month — hard to schedule, rescheduling meetings & lunches at the last minute, etc. There are reasons for it, but to anyone who I’ve flaked on, I really apologize.

[My Mom’s health has needed some attention during the period, but I’ve also had an incredibly hard time kicking a cold and/or flu — I’ll feel good for a day or two, then have a fever and huge congestion for a day or two, very unpredictably. Kathy and SPL are seeing similar sorts of patterns with their own things.]

Anyway, I hate to be so unpredictable, so I’m really sorry if I’ve flaked on you lately — thanks for understanding.