Alexandria Online

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


You want to read? Read. Now you can do it wherever you want with whatever you want-- on your phone, in braille, on a giant screen, with your email popping in the background and a movie playing, or on the thin, minimilist greyscales of the Kindle.

There's no excuse not to read now. But it gets harder and harder to sit down and do it. Partly because that is what people do all day. They read email and documents. Then they go home and read facebook and blogs. They read their phones more than they use them to talk.

This all sounds wonderful. More reading than ever. But it's very twitchy reading. Look at the length of my sentences. Very. Short. One gets used to this from reading lots of email every day, and then one finds difficulty slowing down the mind -- and the eyes -- and perhaps even one's breathing -- to take in highly subordinated, complex, subtly nuanced articulations of ideas that may require a pause at the end of line to digest the clauses and savor the full implications of an idea, following its ramifications through the branching paths of validity or deceit.

Now that's the kind of sentence I like. Perhaps because I am a classicist, I have learned to treat different kinds of reading very differently. However quickly we classicists choose to read in our native tongues, we all read Latin and Greek extremely slowly. We can stare at a single Greek verb for minutes, take a few more to consult the lexicon, check the commentary to see if there is a note, and maybe even crack open a grammar book for backup. We know we have to change gears.

My wife, with a Ph.D in English, was accustomed to a narrower range, from Derrida (slow), to modern fiction (medium) to memoires (fast.) Email changed that by adding a new speed to her gear-box: twitchily fast. This summer it has taken her several weeks to change not only the pace but the depth of her reading so that it is slower, closer and more thoughtful.

Amazon has announced that it will again lower the price of the Kindle. And there will be no "improvements" except that it is even smaller and lighter. It costs a lot less than an iPad and it is a lot less than an iPad. This device is for people who want to sit still, breath slowly, and read without twitching. I'm hoping Amazon will still fulfill my prediction two posts back of making it free, perhaps with some sort of contract to buy a certain number of books within two years or such-like. People might even stop saying "Kindle" and start saying "book." We don't say "bound paper book" we say "book;" we don't say "cell phone" much any more, we just say "phone."

Trust Us: We Used To Be In Print

When the editors of WikiLeaks released 90,000 pages of classified documents, they released them first to three established new outlets: The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian. Only after these three content giants were able to analyze and comment were the raw data posted on the internet.

Ink and paper are not the elements that WikiLeaks lacked and sought in established news organizations. All three publish on the internet everything they publish in print. And some of the things they have published in print in the past have proven to be wrong.

Trust is a tricky thing. Sometimes our trust is betrayed. Trust means that you are not sure that someone is correct or telling the truth. If you already know what someone is telling you, there is no need to trust anyone but yourself. Of course, sometimes we don't even trust ourselves.

What really helps build trust is a third party, a witness, even a Notary Public. I have a friend who is a Notary Public, and have always been fascinated by the authority that comes with that little stamp press they use to notarize documents. That stamp means, "I attest, I verify, I authorize, I was there."

WikiLeaks was using these established news organizations as their notaries, their third party. WikiLeaks might be wrong; the documents might be fakes. But then all those other guys were faked out too, not just me the reader. We spread the pain around. It's one thing to look like a fool in front of everyone, it's another when everyone got fooled.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do Not Buy an E-Reader: Buy Content

Want to get a free e-reader?

I borrowed a Kindle from school for a while to play with it. On short notice, we needed it back to give it to a librarian who was going away for the summer and desperately wanted to get comfortable with it before the school year began. Fair enough, I said, Trade ya for an iPad.

So I got one of the school's iPads to experiment with, loaded the Kindle App, and started reading all the stuff I bought on Amazon on the screen of my iPad. Then I had to give the iPad back -- but guess what? I've got Kindle-for-PC on my little laptop.

So now I'm reading my e-subscription to the Wall Street Journal, my free New York Times, and my books all on my laptop. Kindle-for-PC has lots of features to make the reading experience much more pleasant that the usual screen reading: easy access to brightness, easy font sizing, easy line width adjustment and three different tones: sepia, black font on white and white font on black.

Do you buy a phone or do you get one free every two years with your contract? If you must have an iPhone4 because you have extra money that will go stale if you don't spend it, then, by all means get the iPhone4. But if you, like me, go with $0.00 as your budget for new phone hardware, why, then would you pay money for an e-reader when you already have one in your PC?

And then there's this: if phone companies are giving away phones, how long will it be before Amazon starts giving away Kindles? The price has already dropped precipitously. You do the math!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Breaking Rules That Were Never Made

My ten year old is a Scratch addict. ( He could spend all day taking apart other kids' programs, remixing them, re-uploading them, leaving comments, reading comments, and playing silly, amateur games and animations online. Everything on this acclaimed, M.I.T-hosted, Web 2.0 Mecca is free for the taking. You can't steal on Scratch because nothing belongs to anybody; it all belongs to everybody.

For example, my son downloads a neat little animation that he finds, opens up the code, adds his own avatar or art to the project, recompiles it and loads it back onto the site as a different version -- a remix. It is an honor to be remixed, because it means that others ran your project and enjoyed it enough to add their own code. And it is considered in good taste to remix others -- a way of showing respect.

The Scratch admins at M.I.T. take this remix activity so seriously that they have a beautiful graphical display of the family trees of projects: You can see how lines fan out and split like family trees as the project evolves. Projects are ranked by the number of remixes they have engendered and authors with high remix statistics are esteemed.

Participants can review, rate and comment on projects, just as they do on blogs or commerical sites like Amazon. But the Scratchies have found a new way to use this feature: participatory fiction. They write stories comment by comment. While there is no rule saying that this is the wrong way to use the comment feature, who would think of using it that way? Kids would. So if there ever was an implied rule that you only write comments in the comment box, that rule is now thoroughly broken.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When We Say "Book" ...

I have now read some books on a Kindle, some on an iPad, some on the Kindle for PC application and one Adobe Digital Edition. And I'm currently reading a beautiful hard cover edition of Updike. The hardcover is a book; the other technologies are book storage sytems. But our language is begining to change as our attitudes change.

Back in the 1970's, when we said we were watching television, we meant three things: we were looking at a television set, we were tuned to a broadcast network -- a "TV station," and we were enjoying the content -- also called "television" -- produced by that network. But now we can watch "TV" on a phone, or on, or on an iPad; and we can watch YouTube or streaming video on our "TV."

The term, "book", will soon evolve to include long prose content and the new technologies that store the content. So, when someone has to wait in the doctor's office, you will tell them, "bring a book" and point to an e-reader. But you will also describe as a book, the scanned, out-of-print 1888 edition of The Tuberous Begonia: it's History and Cultivation that you find on google books. And the hard cover Updike.

The evolution of television is a more appropriate analog to e-book evolution than what happened in the music industry, which was dramatic, out of control and disastrous for many players. The television industry tolerates a certain amount of pirating and occasionally prosecutes egregious content thieves. So it will be with publishers, and especially educational publishers, who have already established an uneasy truce with course packs and electronic reserves.

(For those who don't know, a "course pack" is an improvised anthology of readings for a particular course, put together by a professor from various sources. Chapters and articles are copied and bound in cheap, soft cover, plastic binders and sold in the college book store. The publishers get a pro-rated royalty for the amount copied. E-reserves are simply a free, electronic verion of course packs: sources are scanned and posted on Blackboard or a similar course management system under the -- legaly unstable -- limitations of the fair use clause of the copyright act.)

Have you noticed that you absolutely cannot select and copy to the clipboard any text from a book that you have bought from Amazon? Even on Kindle-for-the-PC, you cannot. The content is locked, even though the product is flexible enough to appear on an iPhone, Android, PC, Kindle or iPad. No doubt, someone will find a way to hack Amazon's security and post copies of books on pirate sites. But it's looking pretty secure for now.

Have you also noticed that there is no way to read content supplied by Apple on any other device? This is a huge flaw. But here's the down-low: no matter what Apple does, several million people will camp out overnight outside the Apple store to give them money because of the magical industrial design of Apple products.

What I've realized about my personal reading is that I want the content above all else. Amazon let's me have my content synchronized on multiple devices. If I read a little farther on my iPad, I'll sync to the same place on my laptop, and so forth. Letting content flow across multiple platforms may be the killer app. Google, which is working on exactly this approach, may show us the way later in the summer.

I may be willing to call that a book.