Briefly noted: Kindle Voyage

For a while I’ve had a Kindle Voyage. It’s functional and the screen is nice. Not much has changed since this 2010 post. Amazon still has no good system for organizing and sorting books, and Amazon doesn’t want you to use desktop computers and that shows in their whole ecosystem design.

The Voyage hardware is, at best, slightly better than the last Kindle iteration I used. Really, though, the improvements are so marginal that I can’t imagine anyone buying the new version unless their old one dies or is lost, as happened to me: Amazon will often knock some money off the new version if you ask them to “repair” the old version. To get the discount, Amazon requires that you send the broken Kindle to them. I don’t know what happens after that. Probably Amazon trashes it, but I’d like to imagine that it’s refurbished.

A lot about the Kindle Voyage is okay. There’s little to love. If you’re going to bother buy a Kindle the Voyage is a better choice than the regular Kindle Paperwhites because it has buttons, albeit buttons that aren’t as prominent or tactile as I’d like.

I don’t use the Kindle for books much, because I still prefer paper and Instapaper is my killer app. At the margins, I now read more nonfiction and fewer books in general, including novels. You’ve probably read or noticed that too many popular nonfiction books are just unsatisfactorily elongated articles. Preferring to read those rather than just clicking the “buy book” button is easier with Instapaper.

This review is thorough and says most of what I’d say. I don’t know how people produce many thousands of words in Kindle reviews. It’s a device without a personality. Which isn’t bad: It just is. There are good use cases for it, but not for me using it.

I still find button presses annoyingly too easy.

 

Links: Back to Blood and James Wood, Amazon wipes Kindle account, school reform, computing, the female social matrix, and more

* “‘Back to Blood’: Tom Wolfe forgot his own rules: Almost 25 years ago, the author made a case for the realist novel. His silly new book suggests he should reread it.” In other Wolfe news, James Wood doesn’t like it either, although “doesn’t like it” is a pretty stupid phrase, but I can’t find or fashion one better at the moment: Wood’s review is really about how free-indirect speech, registers, and personality function not just in this novel, but in The Novel.

* “A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.” Until there are more robust legal or contractual guarantees on Kindle books, I’ll remain reluctant to buy them. On the other hand, as of this writing, it’s possible to strip the DRM from your ebooks. And it works!

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* The Female Social Matrix: An Introduction.

* This is the Era of Nuclear Rejections.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

Week 29 Links: Kindle prices, book reviews, fiction in the workplace, fake teen pregnancy

* The rise of the 99-cent Kindle e-book.

* Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough: “It is time–probably past time–to declare that traditional book reviews are no longer the dominant measure of a book’s impact, or even necessarily the most effective way to reach the intended audience.” For more on why, see the first link.

* Obsolete Computers That Still Do the Job.

* Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life.

* Toppenish teen fakes pregnancy as school project, which is impressive and ballsy.

* Teaching from the Kindle. Short version: a major pain in the ass.

* Working Best at Coffee Shops. This seems like bullshit to me, and a way to encourage distraction, but it must work for some people.

May 2010 links: soap operas, Kindles, systems and stories, and more

* People’s lives are more like soap operas that most of us realize.

* I admire Jeffrey Lewis’ website.

* Peak everything? Not really.

* Academia isn’t broken. We are.

* The most popular passages highlighted in Kindle books. This is a fascinating yet creepy reminder of how much Amazon knows about you.

It also demonstrates the lousy taste most people have in books, with Dan Brown and someone named William P. Young at the top of the list. Young’s book, The Shack, is described as “a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God.” I’ll pass, thanks. The first book I see on the list that isn’t shlocky is Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, which you can (and should) also watch on YouTube.

* Comcast awarded the “Golden Poo” award as the worst company in America. This is doubly funny to me because my internet access comes through Comcast (because I have no other effective choice thanks to Qwest in Tucson offering anemic DSL speeds). A few weeks ago, a market research firm conducting a survey for Comcast called to ask what I thought of the company on a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), and I kept saying “1… 1… 1…” over and over again. But I’m stuck with Comcast and its high prices because they have no real competitors.

* United States sovereign debt is the number one thing to fear right now. But almost no politicians are dealing with it in any way, let alone a realistic way.

* Systems and stories.

* Why don’t men read books? Or, as an alternate question, “It’s worth asking, then, why there are so few men in publishing. Could it be the low pay, low status and ridiculous hours?” (This is all in response to Jason Pinter’s essay).

* The Second Pass’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. I’m probably going to pass—”Even in his best fiction—Money, London Fields—he has relied on narrative gimmicks and trickery to support creaky storylines, and The Pregnant Widow is no exception”—perhaps in favor of rereading Money.

Davidson also says that “Amis is famously fond of playful character names (which can be a weakness), and this novel is full of them: Pansy, Probert, Amen, Dilshak.” This probably isn’t a major problem for me, as I just finished Henry James’ The Golden Bowl for a grad seminar, and in that novel a character is named “Fanny Assingham,” with many plays on what said name could mean.

Kindle land, with requisite ruminations on the iPad

EDIT: See this comment on my long-term analysis of this generation of Kindle.

James Fallows says that in order to avoid becoming a Kindle bore, you should “Just shut up when tempted to say or write anything about it. Otherwise you’ll be driving people crazy with your enthusing about how useful and convenient it is, and what its potential might be, and how many elegant decisions are evident in its conception and design.” I’m going to violate that right now by enumerating the number of things the Kindle does right and huge, giant thing it does wrong. If this makes me a bore, proceed to the next post.

Things done right: The screen is very, very nice, as is the tactile feel of the device itself. Although notes aren’t as satisfying to write as they are in paper, they work reasonably well and are easily aggregated. Using the “search” feature allows effectively infinite, immediate concordances in realtime. Shopping in the Kindle store is easy, although I think I’ve only bought two books from it because of the DRM.

The most useful thing about the Kindle for me isn’t actually reading books bought from Amazon—I’m reluctant to spend much money on them, knowing there’s a decent chance that in five years I’ll have a different device or won’t be able to transfer the books I buy now. Rather, Marco Arment’s Instapaper makes the Kindle insanely useful. If I find a longish article online, I hit the “Read Later” bookmarklet in Firefox. About once a week, I log into Instapaper and download all those articles on my Kindle. Bingo: I don’t have to keep printing and losing papers and I still get to read everything I want to read.

Things done wrong: The big-time, number one problem with the Kindle is its terrible software for organizing and managing documents. Actually, scratch that: it doesn’t really have software for managing documents.

The Kindle shows up as a generic USB device on OS X. Want to load it with .pdfs? Be prepared to drag them into a folder labeled “documents.” This process reminds me of .mp3 players… before the iPod. This doesn’t bode well for Amazon, especially now that the iPad is out.

The closest third-party app I’ve found so far is Calibre, which is clunky and doesn’t work that well, especially out-of-the-box. It won’t automatically sync to my Kindle at the moment for reasons not abundantly clear to me; it doesn’t have built-in optical character recognition (OCR) for .pdfs; it doesn’t automatically copy things bought off my Kindle to the computer. The list goes on. The difficulty of writing really good, really intuitive software like iTunes is really, really high.

I’m reminded of this post comparing Tumblr and Posterous, which compares those two “reblogging” tools. The basic point: design counts more than technology. At the moment, the Kindle’s technology is impressive. The physical hardware isn’t bad, although the screen should be bigger: there isn’t enough space before I have to scroll. But until iTunes for the Kindle comes along and whisks the searching and sorting problems away, the Kindle is effectively crippled by software.

I’m sure the omission of iTunes-for-the-Kindle is intentional on Amazon’s part: what they really want you to do is pay them money every time you buy a book or convert a .pdf. That’s okay but seems penny-wise and pound-foolish; think of Scott Adams’ complaint about bad user interfaces. At the end he asks, “What is your biggest interface peeve?” I now have one.

In other news, Apple released the iPad not long ago, which virtually every media outlet on the planet has covered. Megan McArdle says of it:

I’m still unsure how the iPad gets around the core problem: it doesn’t replace anything. Buying an iPhone let me take my phone, my camera, and my iPod out of the briefcase. Buying a Kindle let me remove a newspaper, several books, and some documents I have on PDF.

You can see similar comments here.

But if the iPad software is sufficiently better than the Kindle, users might end up chiefly with it.
One should read this article from Paul Buchheit’s blog, in which he notes the three reasons why the original iPod succeeded where others didn’t. It was:

1) small enough to fit in your pocket, 2) had enough storage to hold many hours of music and 3) easy to sync with your Mac (most hardware companies can’t make software, so I bet the others got this wrong).

Emphasis added. The weird thing is that Amazon is getting this wrong right now. Syncing the Kindle to my computer is cumbersome; there isn’t a good program for organizing my books and .pdfs. Charlie Stross writes about why he, a self-described UNIX bigot, uses a couple of Macs, instead of cheaper Linux boxes:

The reason I choose to pay through the nose for my computers is very simple: unlike just about every other manufacturer in the business, Apple appreciate the importance of good industrial design.

(Note: he’s British, which explains the “Apple appreciate” rather than “Apple appreciates.” The Brits think of corporations as plural, we think of them as singular. What would Steven Pinker say?)

I would also add that Apple has fewer and different hassles than running Linux boxes, which I say as someone who had periodic problems with audio drivers and other things in the ~2001 – 2003 range before I gave up. But the Kindle’s hassles are reminiscent of a product that should be better than it is. I’ve drifted somewhat from the main point regarding the Kindle, but the device is one of these “close, but still wrong” items that is somewhat frustrating, much like Linux, the last Volvo I drove, the Ikea desks I’ve seen, and chairs that unsuccessfully mimic the Aeron.

The Kindle is very, very good for English majors who get assigned a lot of pre-1923 fiction (which they can get free online) or for people who like reading from that era and do so voluminously. For the rest of us, it lacks, especially in the nonfiction department, where it’s hard to skip from section to section quickly.

Reading fiction on it is a substantially better experience because I seldom skip long sections in novels—it’s pretty hard to decide an entire chapter should be skipped, since that chapter will usually contribute something important to the story (and, if it doesn’t, the novel isn’t very good). In addition, novels are relatively unlikely to have research citations, which are sometimes important in evaluating nonfiction, especially if that nonfiction makes extensive or dubious claims. Right now, the small amount of nonfiction I’ve got doesn’t come with footnote hyperlinks. It shouldn’t be all that hard to create a style named, say, footnote with an automated number linking it to a later number so that one can jump freely back and forth between them. But that’s rare in the books I’ve read.

Amazon has released a kindle Software Development Kit (SDK), which might improve some of its current problems. But until it solves the “organizing home” problem that iTunes does so well, it’s not going to be a tremendously useful device for me and many other heavy readers who need some way of getting articles to and from the device. That’s a huge missing feature that Instapaper (somewhat) solves, but not well enough. The Kindle is an “almost” device, like many of the “almost” mp3 players before the iPod. But I don’t think almost is enough.

Buying a Kindle: Why Didn't I Think of This Last Semester?

Despite my extensive carping about the Digital Restrictions Management on the Amazon Kindle, I ordered one earlier today and now wish I’d been smart enough to do so last semester.

Why? I’m a graduate student in English Lit, and I looked at my reading requirements for this semester and found that the vast majority of the assigned books are out-of-copyright (meaning they were published before 1923), and I can download them free; most are also famous enough to make them easily accessible online. In other words, buying all my books for the semester will cost $200. Buying a Kindle will cost $259, plus another $30 for a case. The Kindle + free books effectively makes the Kindle $59. If I’d realized this last semester, it already would’ve paid for itself. In addition, I won’t have to lug around nearly as many .pdfs as I do now.

Given that the English curriculums appear to focus on pre-1923 texts, I’d be surprised if more English majors and grad students don’t take this path. At the moment, it’s possible to read class books either on a computer screen or print them out, but neither solution works all that well. I suspect this one will, though, as always, we shall see.

New Kindle, same problems

As seemingly every media outlet has mentioned, Amazon released the Kindle 2.0, and the press fawning is more notable than the gadget itself. To be sure, its stats are impressive, and maybe this one will be better made than 1.0. Its big problem, however, still looms: DRM and software. You don’t own a “book” bought with the Kindle—you have a temporary license for it. If Amazon discontinues the Kindle, or declares bankruptcy, or has any of the myriad of other problems companies are susceptible to, your investment is as solid as the wireless transmission of the book itself.

To quote an earlier post:

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

To be sure, in a few circumstances the Kindle is superior, and Megan McArdle enumerates some here: “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but for a subset of people like me–people who buy a lot of new books every year, so that the half-price books make it cost effective, people who spend a lot of time in transit, and people who travel a lot for work–it’s a godsend.” If you’re moving every six months, or likely to be deployed on a Navy ship or sub, or tend to read any given book only once but read many books per year, the Kindle might be worthwhile. For the rest of us, its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) makes it terribly unappealing.

Mid-September links: Kindles, swimming, Chile, and programming

* According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Kindle-dominated world would mean, um, something new. But what?

* The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are in, and the winner offers a typically horrendous opening that is paradoxically special in its own way:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I just got inspired to send an entry for next year’s contest as I wrote this entry. Watch this space for more.

* By way of Paper Cuts, In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master. I mentioned the issue previously at the bottom of this post.

The follow-up about running is here. Yours truly comments in both threads.

* Funny: Bruce Schneider wrote a post for Wired about creating fake identities and the increasing tenuous and yet important link between us and the “data shadows” we generate:

It seems to me that our data shadows are becoming increasingly distinct from us, almost with a life of their own. What’s important now is our shadows; we’re secondary. And as our society relies more and more on these shadows, we might even become unnecessary.

I say “funny,” because I just finished the second draft of a novel that plays with these very ideas. While on the topic of Schneider, he also asks, who needs reason regarding Homeland Insecurity when we can have a culture of perpetual fear instead?

* Speaking of ideas regarding identity, the digital world might be transforming Latin America. In Chile, the New York Times reports a sexual revolution of sorts among the young, driven by technology and connectivity. I wonder what Roberto Bolaño would say.

* Want to be a good programmer? Consider reading.

Buy a Kindle if you want to rent rather than buy books

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

The New York Times on the Kindle

A New York Times article called “Freed From the Page, but a Book Nonetheless” discusses the Amazon Kindle, which I don’t like. But I agree with the article’s conclusion:

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

I just analogize the Kindle to mp3 players before the iPod in the sense that it shows promise but just isn’t there yet. When it is there—less expensive, better interface, easier content management and acquisition (and what a vile phrase that is)—I will be too.

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