One for the geeks…

Here are two images that I, as a science fiction and fantasy aficionado, enjoyed immensely the first time I saw them. Click for THE HUGE!

Firstly, the history of the genre:

And then, a roadmap for newbies, or those who are more experienced but looking for something fresh!

(All rights go to the respective rights holders. If anyone has a problem do contact me through this blog.)


A world without publishing?

So books may well – in fact will probably – make the move from print to digital. At least, that’s how I concluded my last entry. I read an article recently which asked whether the written world is only a few generations away from being extinct for the general populace. It claimed that “reading anything of a decent  length and quality already seems to be near extinction and viewed as for academics and the lonely”.

It’s easy to see where this opinion comes from, and indeed in some quarters it probably holds elements of truth. View this article from the Guardian, the introduction of which I will quote:

Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of “the writer” as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

I’m not going to critique his article in detail – he provides lots of facts and figures that I’m not well enough informed to argue with! However, I disagree with his bleak outlook, and I’ll ramble about why.

Having said that I’m not going to argue with figures, I will throw at least one out there for you: in 2001, 162 million books were sold in the UK. Ten years later…229 million, which is £1.7 BILLION (source). This alone, in the decade which has seen an explosion of music, computer games, films, and the internet with which to distribute everything,  seems to counter the claim that reading long-form works is dead.

Of course, it’s only now that the Kindle et al is really taking off in a big way, so those figures might take a turn for the worse in the near future…but I don’t think that people’s appetite for the written word will change! And I don’t think that people’s appetite for quality will change. And the only way of being assured (relative) quality is by purchasing material that has been properly scrutinised through the editorial process. Yes, there are success stories like that of Amanda Hocking, but those are in a tiny minority. Even if several other people achieve her levels of success by self publishing, the overwhelming majority will not. If nothing else, a publishers goes through the vast piles of dross to ensure that what is published is worthwhile, and I think the public appreciates that, although they may not be entirely aware of it. Publishing will change, no doubt, but I don’t think it will disappear.

Tied to the previous paragraph is the idea of the writer. Will books be written by teams and specialists? Non-fiction books, certainly. That’s already the case more often than not. But novels? I hardly think so. Part of the pleasure of a good author is a consistency of style and voice, which would surely by lost in a book by committee. It may be that as more authors crowd the market, there will be fewer who can make a living solely off their writing, but that remains to be seen.

And will books become devalued? To a certain extent, perhaps. But current trends show ebooks outselling paper copies at similar prices. Again, I think that the reading public appreciates quality, and will be willing to pay for it. Piracy, I think, is more of an issue, but the market is too young to tell how that will pan out.

Publishing is thriving, and will change with the times. Quite how it will look in ten or twenty year’s time, nobody knows, but it will still be there!

A world without books as objects?

I’m shamelessly piggy-backing on a post my wife wrote recently, but I thought I’d throw my point of view into the mix, having had a Kindle for about a month now.

I probably brushed on some of these issues over the course of my last few posts, but I’ll cover them here anyway.

So, I can see e-readers of various sorts becoming the de facto way of reading novels. As the younger generation grows up they’re likely to be much less fazed by not having the traditional bulk, smell and feel of a book in their hands. I, for one, expect the majority of my fiction to be read on the Kindle. The exception, as far as I can tell at the moment, is those books that are part of a series which I have already begun in physical form. I’m definitely not going to re-buy any books in digital form, and for the sake of completion I’m sure I’ll be finishing off physical collections for a while yet – George RR Martin, Robert Jordan (Brandon Sanderson), China Mieville etc.

At the moment, however, I don’t think I would want to use a Kindle (or an iPad or a desktop or a laptop!) to read a newspaper, a reference book, or (almost) any kind of book with pictures!

Let me elaborate. The last point in the list is actually the most telling. The Kindle, as it stands, actually does what I think is a remarkable job of displaying images in black and white. They’re detailed and nuanced, and much better than I expected. But they are, of course, completely constrained by the size of the page. For books which are published in the mass-market paperback format, I can see pictures working reasonably on the Kindle, as long as they’re black and white anyway. Quentin Blake’s Roald Dahl pictures, or Chris Riddell’s illustrations for “The Edge Chronicles” are good examples.

As soon as pictures are shrunk to fit Kindle’s screen, however, they become less appealing. That’s not to say that they’re illegible – far from it in most cases – but still there’s a sense that they’re being crammed into a space that is too small for them. Combine this with formatting problems and then the experience isn’t so pleasant.

I’ll use the book I’m reading currently as an example. The Library: An Illustrated History is, as the title suggests ,crammed with pictures. I didn’t even attempt to read it on the Kindle itself, instead choosing to use the Kindle software on my PC. This alleviates the size issue to an extent (particularly on my desktop) but still isn’t perfect. In a physical book, the annotations are neatly appended to the pictures in a relevant way, but on the Kindle (well, for this book at least) while the annotations are in line with the pictures, more often than not the annotation will be on one page while the picture is on the next. Little things like this are frustrating!

To tackle the other two areas I mentioned: I haven’t read a newspaper on a Kindle yet, but I can’t see it being a brilliant experience. The problem is very similar to that of reference books. It is hard to comfortably “dip in and out of” a book on the Kindle. Reading straight through a novel is wonderful, skipping through something isn’t so easy. While navigating through a book is very possible, it isn’t intuitive or fun. I expect this to be less of an issue with the Kindle Touch.

Now, having complained for a while, I’ll put my hand up and admit that the problems I’ve discussed aren’t major. Dedicated electronic reading devices are still in their infancy as main stream products. I can see all of the issues I’ve mentioned being circumvented within the next few years. There have already been prototypes of flexible e-ink screens – consider this from two years ago. Combined with a bigger size and possibly a touch interface, this would enable a brilliant newspaper or reference experience. There have also been experiments with colour e-ink screens. With a higher resolution, and proper content formatting, this would eliminate any problems with images. Combined with rapid improvements and innovations in the tablet and mobile phone spheres, I can see nothing holding back the promise of electronic devices as the dominant form of consumption for written media – and for most media full stop.

Just to deal with a couple of points from my wife’s post: she suggests a world where restaurant menus become simply a digital item that is uploaded to one’s reader. I think that while possible, it will take a very long time for digital readers to reach the kind of market penetration to make that a viable business model. Similarly with post-it notes – while most computers of any type have a note-making facility, I think it will take a long time (maybe until perfectly accurate voice recognition?) before it is as natural to make a digital note as a hand-written scribble. Digital notes cannot be stuck to computer screens, piles of paper, fridge doors and the like! Digital libraries, on the other hand, are very much in the offing – Amazon is already offering a limited service, and it can only grow from here.

Here I have dealt with “a future without books” in terms of the physical books we are used to, and concluded that yes, in time we may well be living in a world where books are relegated to niche markets (luddites and collectors to name two obvious ones, although there are others). However, although the technology to accomplish this might be just round the corner, I can’t see it actually happening for a good while longer.

Do You Think You’re Clever?

Do You Think You’re Clever? was the second book I read on my Kindle. Its premise is simple: Oxbridge interview questions are (in)famous for their unique way of assessing candidates, and at first glance can appear irrelevant and nonsensical.

‘What happens if I drop an ant?’ ‘What books are bad for you?’ ‘What percentage of the world’s water is contained in a cow?’ These are just three of the 75 genuine interview questions that John Farndon attempts to give full answers to. The results are interesting, if not fascinating, and thought-provoking.

When I saw it on offer for £0.99, I thought “this is exactly the kind of book I like” and bought it on the spot. Maybe I shouldn’t have had quite such high expectations; or at least thought about it a little more. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I read all 75 chapters with interest, and occasionally with real enjoyment and engagement. On the whole, however, I was not as hooked as I thought I might be.

Partly this is due to the format. In an earlier post I describe the inability of the Kindle to really facilitate dipping in and out of books naturally. If I had had the book sitting on the table and read it an interesting chapter at a time I might have come away with a more favourable impression.

I think I expected more humour (although why this should be the case I’m not sure – Oxbridge interviews are not famous for their light-heartedness). I also was looking forward to more esoteric and bizarre facts than this offered. All this sounds very negative, and indeed my lasting impression is one of mild disappointment. At the time, however, I was interested in the answers, and didn’t feel that it was a chore, although I wouldn’t have gone so far as to say that I was gripped.

Wuthering Heights

Firstly a disclaimer: I’m not what you’d call a natural reviewer – in fact, I struggle to have an opinion about anything, as my wife will be quick to point out. On top of this, I also sometimes struggle to analyse my likes and dislikes when I do have a point of view. I’m expecting this to be more of a vague “how I felt about it” than a detailed critical analysis.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read Wuthering Heights up until a couple of weeks ago. In the BBC’s The Big Read Top 100 (a little dated now, but still a good indication) I had read all the top 12 bar this book. On the other hand, this was the 12th, so I had done the top 11!

In an attempt to circumvent my non-decisive nature, I’ll get right to my opinion – I didn’t enjoy the book very much, and in comparison I enjoyed Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen more. (I think that comprises the majority of authors from roughly the same period that I’ve read. I need to get round to Thackeray, Eliot et al. ) I will say that I was reading it over Christmas, which may not be the best time of year to dedicate some time to taking in a novel, but I was still able to read large chunks at a time, so I don’t feel that I didn’t do it justice. Overall, I more or less agree with this quite from WikipediaWhilst most critics recognised the power and imagination of the novel, many found the story unlikeable and ambiguous.

However, I’ll start with what I did like. Although it took me aback at the time, I was glad that Heathcliff was so ambiguous. I spent about 90% of the book waiting for a Darcy or Rochester-style turnaround, but it never really arrives. If anything, it’s the opposite. During the first half, in which the focus is primarily about Heathcliff’s love for Catherine, I thought things would head up from there. But when Catherine dies and Heathcliff descends into bitterness and vengeance I constantly expected some kind of redemptive finale. Not so. At the time I was disappointed, but in hindsight I liked it.

Although it made it tricky to keep track of, I quite like the “flashback” structure.  And the happy ending regarding Hareton and Cathy appealed to my sentimental side.

But why didn’t it go down positively overall? I find it harder to pinpoint what I disliked about it. Firstly, I was slightly confused about who was who for a time. A quick search for a family tree on Google sorted that out though.

While the ambiguity about Heathcliff appealed, I was left at the end feeling that I had missed something. Quite what, I’m not sure. Maybe I have just become too accustomed to plot twists and revelations, and was dissatisfied when nothing really “happened”.  Looking back after a couple of weeks, I still have the same feeling that I didn’t particularly enjoy Wuthering Heights, but that is now tempered with an admiration for the strength of its characters and story that I did not have while reading it. Having read a tiny bit of critical analysis while writing this piece, it seems that my kind of feelings are akin to many others, which I find reassuring.

There’s obviously far far more to be said about this novel – but if you’ve read it you already have an opinion, and if you haven’t the you don’t want reams of analysis, so I’ll leave my meanderings there.




Kindle 4

Kindle 4

So, the Kindle. Having ummed and ahhed (I had to think how to write that expression – it doesn’t translate very well to print, does it?!) for a long time, I finally decided to go ahead and ask for one for birthday/Christmas. For those that don’t know, in my case those two events are only nine days apart, which comes in handy when asking for slightly more extravagant presents.

There’s actually some irony in this, as one of my reasons for waiting was because I was holding out for a touch-screen version. Amazon finally delivered, announcing both the Kindle 4 and the Kindle Touch last year. But when it came to it, I decided that I didn’t actually want a touch screen. It’s only asking for greasy fingerprints all over it, and actually pressing a button on the edge feels more like how I read a book (with a quick flick at the edge of a page) than stabbing or swiping at the middle of the page. The fact that that Amazon has not yet deigned to release the Touch in the UK had no bearing on my decision!

As it transpired, one of the presents I opened on my birthday was indeed a Kindle! So here are some of my thoughts on the device, the books, and the Amazon ecosystem.

The Device:

I’m afraid I’m not going to bother posting pictures – the one at the top of this post should suffice. And if you’re after a detailed explanation of its operation, a quick Google will come up with more reviews than you can shake a stick at. From my point of view, I’ve now read three books, all of which have been relatively painless experiences. Turning the page is simple, and the refresh “flash” which I think has put many people off is actually no problem at all – you only lose the same amount of time as turning a physical page. There have been times I’ve hit the back button instead of the forward one, but that’s not been often, and is more down to me being careless than any deficiency with the Kindle.

The actual reading experience in terms of the screen is blissful – it’s less contrasty than most paper, and most screens, but that’s almost easier on the eyes, I think. It does take a while to get used to an electronic device that has no backlight, and I think I’ll invest in a small LED lamp in order to read in bed/the dark. Of course, that’s a problem it shares with traditional codices.

As for battery life, I got it almost a month ago and haven’t charged it since, despite reading three books, opening a couple of others, and buying a couple of items. While it technically only has half the battery life of the Kindle Keyboard and the Touch, I can’t see any circumstances in which I will have to worry.

Size wise it’s roughly the width and height of a paperback, but much thinner than most – approximately as thin as a standard pencil. It feels fairly sturdy in the hand, but I won’t be cramming it into a pocket as I have done with books in the past, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable chucking it carelessly into a bag if I’m going travelling. That said, with some form of cover (lovingly crafted by my wife) I don’t worry about it when it is in transit!

The Books:

I have read Wuthering Heights, Do You Think You’re Clever, and Etymologicon, in that order. I paid a grand total of £1.98, which I’ll discuss in the next section. I’m considering starting to write mini-reviews on what I read, so I’ll leave that stuff for a later date and just talk about reading them. Reading a novel such as Wuthering Heights is very straightforward. It being a free copy of a classic I noticed at least one typo (‘hash’ in place of ‘harsh’) but I think that can be forgiven. The one thing I would have liked was a family tree at the beginning, which I know some physical copies include. I’m not sure whether a paid-for Kindle version would have included such niceties.

The other two books are different. Do You Think You’re Clever is a collection of Oxbridge interview questions. It strikes me as a “dip in and out of” book – reading one or two chapters when you have time to spare, and flicking through to find something interesting. This is hard to do with a Kindle, even though there is a hyper-linked table of contents available – it just feels a lot less natural. I ended up just reading it through chapter by chapter, which did have the benefit of ensuring I’d read every entry! The other problem, which is shared with Etymologicon, is that of footnotes. The Kindle doesn’t render pages in the way that a physical book does, meaning that a footnote or an endnote might not appear in a convenient place. It may just be on the next page, but it may be at the end of the chapter. Flicking through the pages to find it, and then flicking back to try and resume reading, is time consuming and uncomfortable. It may be that I am missing some function to take you to the footnote and then return you to your place, but until I find one it will be a frustration.

The Amazon Ecosystem:

Buying books on the Kindle is painless – dangerously so. Typing is not as easy as on the Keyboard or the Touch, but Amazon’s guesswork as to what you’re searching for cuts down on the time spent inputting text. Prices for books vary wildly. Amazon’s currently running a “12 days of Kindle” offer with hundreds of books for £0.99 or thereabouts, which is great, although only a couple of books have really caught my eye. They also have a “Daily Deal” which is also a £0.99 offer. Books are almost always cheaper then their print versions at list price, but once Amazon’s had its way with prices (i.e. lowering them) the difference is not always pronounced. Sometimes, in fact, the physical edition is cheaper, which is very frustrating. Part of this is probably due to the fact that VAT has to paid on ebooks but not on physical ones.

A standard paperback of the type I normally read (science fiction or fantasy) usually comes in at a couple of pounds cheaper on the Kindle. Over a period of time that would amount to a substantial difference, but at the moment I have no spending money, so I’m not buying anything unless it’s less than a couple of quid. Overall, if you would be buying books anyway, you will make a saving through a Kindle. For me, I probably actually spend more than I might otherwise, as I’m tempted by the lower prices! Sometimes, though, you find bargains. I just bought The Library: An Illustrated History for £2.35 compared to £12.74 and £25.49 for paperback and hardback respectively. (To embark on a tangent: The Library has lots of pictures in it. Pictures display fine on the Kindle, but are black and white, and scaled to fit the screen. While it’s the text I’m really interested in, I expect to read most of it on my computer so that I can enjoy the illustrations.)

What I just wrote in parentheses actually brings me on to my next point. I’m enjoying the fact that content is synced between the Kindle and the software on my two computers, so whenever I want to carry on reading I can just pick up where I left off! If I ever get a smart phone then I’ll add that to the system as well!

Right, I’ll sign off there. That’s a massive wall of text, so if anyone at all makes it this far I’m impressed! Have a gold star.

(Edited to add the pictures of book covers in order to break up the page!)

Current hardware and software

What am I using at the moment?

Well, my main computer is one I purchased just before I started university in 2007. So it’s now nearly four years old, and all I’ve changed is a hard drive and the operating system. In other words, it’s showing its age.

At the time I wasn’t anywhere near as technically literate as I am now, so I purchased a pre-built machine. I kind of regret this now, but I didn’t know any better then. At least I was confident enough to choose the components I wanted. I used a company called Cougar Extreme which came highly recommended, and as far as I’m concerned the recommendations were deserved. There was a minor hiccough with payment at my end (something to do with my debit card), but they didn’t bat an eyelid and just held the system for me until I sorted things out. So, without further ado:

  • Case: a no-name, silver-and-black mid-sized tower
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E6850 at stock 3.0Ghz
  • Motherboard: Asus p5ne-sli
  • Graphics card: Nvidia GeForce 8800GTS 320MB
  • Hard Drive 1: the original 320GB (Maxtor, I think)
  • Hard Drive 2: Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB
  • RAM: 2GB of cheap DDR2
And then there are the peripherals:
  • Monitor: Hannstar AG191 19″ 5:4
  • Keyboard: Enermax Aurora Premium
  • Mouse: Razer DeathAdder
  • Mousemat: Qpad CT Large
  • Speakers: Creative T20
  • Headset: Creative HS 600
As it stands, the only things I’ll keep if and when I upgrade are the keyboard, mouse, mousemat and speakers.
My priority when I bought the system was to get the best performance for my budget, and I think I did fairly well. But that did mean that I had to make some serious sacrifices, most obviously in the case and monitor departments, both of which are pretty dire. I’ll probably create a rolling “I want this system” post, which will detail my upgrade plans, so you can see where I’m headed.
I also have a Samsung NC10 netbook.
Now on to software. Well, I guess Windows is the best place to start:
  • OS: I’m on Windows 7 Professional x64, which I nabbed for £30 during the student offer which Microsoft made available at launch. Bargain! My netbook, after a brief dalliance with Jolicloud, is on XP.
  • Antivirus: Microsoft Security Essentials. ‘Nuff said – get it.
  • Anti-malware: I’m not great at remembering, but I use a combination of CCleaner, Malwarebytes Antimalware, Spybot Search & Destroy, and Ad-Aware.
  • Browser: I have at some point used IE, Firefox, Opera, and Chrome. At the moment, Chrome is my default, and I have no complaints – it’s still the fastest and most responsive, subjectively.
  • Image editor: I would LOVE Photoshop CS5, but even at the student price it’s beyond my means, so I make do with the very capable GIMP, which does everything my very limited abilities ask it to. For stitching, Microsoft ICE.
  • Image manager: Again, if I could afford it I’d use Lightroom, but freeware is king for someone on a tight budget, so Picasa it is.
  • Media players: I use Foobar2000 to play music, as it’s lightweight, highly customizable, and plays everything I’m likely to throw it. iTunes is great, but I don’t have an iDevice, and I can do without Apple Updater nagging me. For video, VideoLAN VLC is my port of call. Again, it’s lightweight and will play almost anything.
  • Productivity: On my desktop, Office Ultimate 2007, again making use of Microsoft’s student deals. On my netbook, Open Office 3.
  • Other: In no particular order, and far from exhaustively; Adobe Reader X, uTorrent, Audacity, Revo Uninstaller, Steam, 7-Zip, Dropbox, Skype,  and WinDirStat.