Links: Doctors, free stuff, broadband, ebooks, density, cancer vaccine, and more!

* Someone found this blog by searching for “Can doctors have hobbies”? The answer is yes. The more interesting thing is that few do.

* L.A. to unleash city-wide gigabit broadband. Awesome.

* Woman from MTV demands free stuff.

* Peak ebook already?

* Does bitchiness serve any useful scholarly purpose? Probably.

* Density is the driver of Seattle’s innovation.

* A reinvented skillet.

* Game, the Art of Archery, and the Business of Selling.

* “The Cancer Vaccine: Only one in three American girls is vaccinated against HPV. That will mean thousands of gratuitous cancer deaths. Why?

* “What are some of the biggest problems with a guaranteed annual income?

Links: eBooks, dubious love stories, polaroids, drinking, state-sanctioned murder, and more

* “The eBook – Déjà Vu All Over Again?” Make sure you read to at least the fourth full paragraph, which is where the punchline hits.

* “Before Sexting, There Was Polaroid: The arrival of instant film meant the end of snooping photo-lab technicians—which, in turn, homemade porn for everyone.”

* Women who drink; sounds like a fun essay collection.

* If “The Bipartisan Security Ratchet” doesn’t scare you, it should:

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right to detain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “pretentious fountain pens.” I would be more interested in an unpretentious fountain pen, if such a thing is possible in this age of rollerballs. Another person found it, although I doubt what they’re looking for, via “fucking asshole girl.”

* “[. . .] for all the valid complaints that one hears about the state of American college education, there’s a clear demand for it on the international stage so we must be doing something right.

* “Former NFL cheerleader, teen reportedly find ‘happiness.’” When I was in high school, I doubt I had a tenth of the game this kid must have.

* The Best Writing Teachers Are Writers Themselves.

* The Millions interviews Daniel Mendelsohn:

The Millions: There is a formula for criticism in the piece which says that knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment, with an emphasis on meaningful. What makes a critique meaningful? As you point out, a lot of people have opinions who are not really critics and there are lots of people who are experts on subjects who don’t write good criticism. If everyone is not really a critic, where is the magic?

DM: It’s a very interesting question. It is magic, it’s a kind of alchemy. We all have opinions, and many people have intelligent opinions. But that’s not the same. Nor is it the case that great experts are good critics. I come out of an academic background so I’m very familiar with that end of the spectrum of knowledge. I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a professional explainer of the Classics—when I first started writing whenever there was some Greek toga-and-sandals movie they would always call me in—so I developed the sense of what it means to mediate between expertise and accessibility.

Notice that word: “meaningful.” It’s not whether a critical take is positive or negative, good or bad; it’s above that, or beyond it, or some other spatial-reckoning metaphor. This is also what I strive to offer when I read my friends’ work, whether fiction or non.

Follow-up to the eBook and publishing post

See the original post here, and pay special attention to the thoughtful and informed comments (which are a pleasant change from the usual Internet fare). They also bring up some points I’d like to address:

1) I don’t think publishers will go away altogether, even if they persist in some as mere quality signals or brands. Among the millions of self-published books coursing through the Internet, making informed decisions as a reader gets even harder than it is now. In the previous post, I mentioned the problem of false negatives—books that should’ve been published but are rejected—without reiterating that most negatives are true negatives—that is, books that are rejected because they’re bad. Readers are having and will continue to have problems in this regard. As Laura Miller says in “When anyone can be a published author: How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?“:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

2) As a result of 1), I wouldn’t be surprised if “publishing” morphs into a much smaller, broader-based business in which editor-agent hybrids take on promising writers in a somewhat traditional manner but don’t offer advances or some of the conventional “perks.” Instead, they’ll work with writers to improve the writers’ writing, structure, and so forth, in exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 20% of the book’s profits.

Be very wary of writers who say they don’t need editors. Maybe Nabokov didn’t need an editor, but pretty much every other writer did and does. And editors are expensive—I know because I’ve looked into what hiring one would cost—and writers, especially young, untested writers, don’t have a lot of money. So I don’t think lump-sum upfront payments will work for most writers, particularly fiction writers. Editors might judge who is worth investment based on signals like, say, blog posts.

Laments like this one by Kristine Kathryn Rusch make me wonder about what function editors are performing now; I can’t excerpt it effectively, but it observes the extent to which junior editors at publishing houses treat her like an idiot. If the experience described in her post is routine or commonplace, I think it bodes ill for conventional publishing houses (assuming, of course, there’s not some mitigating factor she’s not describing in the post).

A lot of writers say publishers aren’t doing that much to promote their book as it is, which may be true, but they do at least send a quality signal. I wonder, though, about the cost of books—especially hardcovers, and still think this cost is going to fall. Which leads me to. . .

3) I think self-published writers are, over time, going to put pricing pressure on conventionally published books. If you’re a random mystery reader and don’t have especially high quality standards for prose quality or prose originality and consume a very large number of mysteries, self-published ones that aren’t as polished as commercially published fiction might be just as good. If you’re buying books for $2.99 on a Nook instead of $5.99 – $9.99 via Nook or mass-market paperback, then you get a lot more word for your buck. This is especially true, it seems to me, in genre publishing, where series are common and so are relatively rapid and similar books.

Being the kind of “informed” reader discussed in # 1 doesn’t stop most people from being not very discriminating.

4) Desperation is underrated as an inspiration to change. Jeff observes in a comment: “As an author just barely at the bottom of the midlist, if my choice is between self-publishing and not publishing and all, I’ll choose the former.” Me too, although, like him, I’d choose conventional publishing at this point in time, given the choice. But writers without a “choice” will increasingly lean towards self-publishing.

5) Blogs and other non-publisher signals of quality may become more important over time. If readers are debating an author’s merits, looking at their blog or other online writing may be a useful way to decide whether a writer is worth the time it takes to begin a novel. I suspect most non-established writers know or suspect this by now, but it’s worth reiterating anyway. These days, when people say things like, “I want to be a writer” to me, I ask if they have a blog. If the answer is “no,” that signals they’re probably not very serious about writing. Even if the blog only has one post a month, if that post is a substantial or interesting one I take it as a positive sign.

6) If you’re interested in how the publishing industry works now and why, despite the media portrayals, it works better than it’s sometimes depicted, take a look at Charlie Stross’s series of posts Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which were last updated in May 2010 but are still required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

7) I don’t think most of my analysis is terribly original, and you could find similar analyses elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the changing business interesting both as a reader and writer / would-be writer.

8) I’m not sure much, if any of this, matters to readers, but it should matter a lot to writers who care at all about making some money from their work.

Books have been dying as long as they've been living: Walter Benjamin edition

“Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end.” This could have been posted in the New York Times or Slate this morning. But it’s Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, the original piece being published in 1928. Books have been dying for a very long time.

Books have been dying as long as they’ve been living: Walter Benjamin edition

“Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end.” This could have been posted in the New York Times or Slate this morning. But it’s Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, the original piece being published in 1928. Books have been dying for a very long time.

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.

Nuts: The Barnes and Noble Nook isn't very good

The Barnes and Noble Nook isn’t ready for prime time, according to David Pogue of the New York Times. Walter Mossberg of the WSJ agrees. Too bad: I was thinking about buying one, mostly for the .pdf capabilities, but I think I’ll wait—maybe for Kindle 3. I don’t think the Kindle’s current and potential dominance of the eBook market is good for books or consumers, and part of the reason that the Nook attracted me is precisely because it represents a real competitor to the Kindle. But these reviews indicate that the Nook was either rushed to market or poorly tested.

The .pdf issue is important to me because I’m a grad student in English and have to read a steadily larger number of articles and book chapters. Most get printed, but I no longer have the physical capacity to store, organize, and carry all of them, which makes something like the Kindle or Nook appealing, despite my reservations concerning the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). By the way, you might want to check out the comments section on my post “New Kindle, same problems,” as Jason Fisher and Maggie Brookes have been talking books, ebooks, and culture in that space.

%d bloggers like this: