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.

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.

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.

What's Going on With Amazon and Macmillan?

The book blagosphere has been buzzing with the news that Amazon, a big website to which I link in most of my posts, isn’t selling any titles published by Macmillan, the smallest of the big publishers in the U.S. The dominant question in all this is “why?” There’s been lots of speculation, much of it not worth linking to, but Charlie Stross has written a handy outsider’s guide to the fight, which is actually about how the publishing industry will shake out as a book makes its way from an author to you, a reader.

The bad news is that Stross’ post is almost impossible to excerpt effectively, but I’ll try:

Publishing is made out of pipes. Traditionally the supply chain ran: author -> publisher -> wholesaler -> bookstore -> consumer.

Then the internet came along, a communications medium the main effect of which is to disintermediate indirect relationships, for example by collapsing supply chains with lots of middle-men.

From the point of view of the public, to whom they sell, Amazon is a bookstore.

From the point of view of the publishers, from whom they buy, Amazon is a wholesaler.

From the point of view of Jeff Bezos’ bank account, Amazon is the entire supply chain and should take that share of the cake that formerly went to both wholesalers and booksellers. They do this by buying wholesale and selling retail, taking up to a 70% discount from the publishers and selling for whatever they can get. Their stalking horse for this is the Kindle publishing platform; they’re trying to in-source the publisher by asserting contractual terms that mean the publisher isn’t merely selling them books wholesale, but is sublicencing the works to be republished via the Kindle publishing platform. Publishers sublicensing rights is SOP in the industry, but not normally handled this way — and it allows Amazon to grab another chunk of the supply chain if they get away with it, turning the traditional publishers into vestigial editing/marketing appendages.

The agency model Apple proposed — and that publishers like Macmillan enthusiastically endorse — collapses the supply chain in a different direction, so it looks like: author -> publisher -> fixed-price distributor -> reader. In this model Amazon is shoved back into the box labelled ‘fixed-price distributor’ and get to take the retail cut only. Meanwhile: fewer supply chain links mean lower overheads and, ultimately, cheaper books without cutting into the authors or publishers profits.

Read the rest on Stross’ blog.

This makes me feel slightly dirty for having bought a Kindle recently. On the other hand, this… thing… is between giant corporations, both of which are working to extract as much money from me as possible. If I had to root for either Macmillan or Amazon, I’d chose the former, since the prospect of Amazon as the middleman between virtually every reader and every author is unpalatable. But with the iPad en route, the Barnes and Noble Nook at least in existence, and other eReaders on the way, the prospect of Amazon’s dominance looks far less likely than it did. That’s probably why the company is so desperate at the time.

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.

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.

Early August links: Book stalking, teaching, Playboy's Guide to Lingering, and more

* Makers’ versus Managers’ Schedules:

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

* Rands’ The Book Stalker: Where is it? Everyone has one could well describe me.

* From the department of unintended consequences: “The New Book Banning: Children’s books burn, courtesy of the federal government.” This is because the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) stops the selling of used children’s good produced before 1985, when lead was banned, unless those products conform to the post-1985 standards. Although lead in children’s books hasn’t been shown to be harmful, the books don’t pass muster anyway.

I am generally not an organized political person who writes angry letters to Congresspersons and such, but this might be worth an exception.

(Hat tip to Megan McArdle.)

* A “teach naked” proponent challenges us to stop using computers while we teach:

Mr. Bowen is part of a group of college leaders who haven’t given up on that dream of shaking up college instruction. Even though he is taking computers out of classrooms, he’s not anti-technology. He just thinks they should be used differently—upending the traditional lecture model in the process.

Here’s the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems, whether or not laptops, iPods, or other cool gadgets are thrown into the mix.

This is what I generally shoot for; in classrooms without computers, I never use one, and even when they come with classrooms, I generally use them very little, and mostly as a whiteboard substitute.

* What goes into book jackets: sometimes the answer is “facile stereotypes” or “very little.”

* Edifying editing, from a journal reviewer. Contrast this with my recent post, “Careers—and careerism—in academia and criticism“. Notice this bit from “Edifying editing:”

Ellison finds that the profession has slowed down, doubling the “submission to print” time at major journals. What was unexpected for me was the finding that most of the
slowdown is the number of revisions, not the ‘within round cycle time.’ I hadn’t realized that the interminable wait for a response was common twenty-five years ago. What has changed, Ellison shows, is that we have about doubled the number of rounds. I had thought it was merely deficiencies in my own papers that caused me to revise three, four, even five times. But no, it is a profession-wide phenomenon.

Like most economists, I am personally obsessed with efficiency, and wasted resources offend me in an irrational way. The way economists operate journals is perhaps the most inefficient operation I encounter on a regular basis. It is a fabulous irony that a profession obsessed with efficiency operates its core business in such an inefficient manner. How long do you spend refereeing a paper? Many hours are devoted to reviewing papers. This would be socially efficient if the paper improved in a way commensurate with the time spent, but in fact revising papers using blind referees often makes papers worse. Referees offer specific advice that push papers away from the author’s intent. It is one thing for a referee to say “I do not find this paper compelling because of X” and another thing entirely to say that the referee would rather see a different paper on the same general topic and try to get the author to write it.

Does anyone have data about paper efficiency and the humanities? Searching through Project MUSE, JSTOR, and Google Scholar yields nothing through the criteria I tried.

* I very much like the poem “Playboy’s Guide to Lingering” by Joseph J. Capista, although I can’t decide why; normally the Slate poems leave me high and dry, like the New Yorker’s.

* A review of Thy Neighbor’s Wife from Bill Wasik at The Second Pass; compare to my comments here. I’m not sure I buy this: “Of all the mass utopian notions of the twentieth century, the sexual revolution was both the most spectacularly successful and, in the end, the most thwarted” because it would seem that the “success” part has dominated the “failure” part.

* Hilarious if silly: Vampires Suck. Actually, they don’t. And that’s the problem:

Just as America’s young men are being given deeply erroneous ideas about sex by what they watch on the Web, so, too, are America’s young women receiving troubling misinformation about the male of the species from Twilight. These women are going to be shocked when the sensitive, emotionally available, poetry-writing boys of their dreams expect a bit more from a sleepover than dew-eyed gazes and chaste hugs. The young man, having been schooled in love online, will be expecting extreme bondage and a lesbian three-way.

* State governments are behaving with even less foresight than usual; according to a Salon post quoting the San Jose Mercury News, “In 1980, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education. By 2007, that had fallen to 10 percent — the same as prisons and parole.” And 2007 predated the current crisis, showing that the trend away from higher education funding is accelerating.

* A variety of research shows that driving while distracted leads to more accidents, and I wouldn’t be surprised if thinking while distracted leads to an inability to consider deep thoughts and inhibits creativity. This is part of the reason I’m suspicious of Tyler Cowen’s argument in Create Your Own Economy that the ceaseless flow of bite-sized information bits is a net positive.

* Fascinating: Japan and Korea’s hidden protectionist measures prevented U.S. car companies from competing in their home markets, and the English-language press largely ignored the story. Compare this to the argument in David Halberstam’s The Reckoning. Maybe the widely held story regarding Detroit’s utter incompetence needs to be substantially revised.

* Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four from Slate’s Farhad Manjoo observes, “The worst thing about this story [of Amazon remotely deleting copies of Orwell’s 1984] isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities.” Indeed. But the main thing he forgets is that our future, like our toilets, is unlikely to be completely paperless: to the extent readers and publishers want to continue distributing books via print, they’ll still be able to. The situation probably isn’t as dire as Manjoo implies, but his warning is very much worth remembering: you don’t want the means of knowledge dissemination in a single company’s hands. It used to be that writers feared churches more than anything else; then it was governments; now it might be companies. Perhaps that’s a microcosm of the overall development of power in our world.

* Speaking of electronic books, Barnes & Noble has demonstrated its capacity to totally miss the boat with its recently announced eBook Reader. Problems: 1) It’s late to the game, with Sony and Amazon having preempted it by years; 2) No e-ink paper—who wants to read books on crappy computer and iPod screens? 3) Lousy device name. “Kindle” and “iPod” are evocative and unique; eBook Reader is not. If a Kindle-like device is coming, maybe Barnes & Noble could stage a dramatic comeback, but I’m not optimistic.

(Also see the WSJ’s article here.)

* Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The article argues it’s not evolution; compare this to Geoffrey Miller’s arguments.

* IKEA is not the social or environmental paragon its corporate image makes it out to be.

* Gas and the suburbs.

* The wisdom of Megan McArdle regarding bike commuting.

* Finally, for some foreign affairs: Is Burma attempting to build nuclear weapons?

EBook Monday: Steven Berlin Johnson, Google Books, and more

* Steven Berlin Johnson speculates on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write: […] a future with more books, more distractions — and the end of reading alone.”

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* In other electronic news, a warning: Google Book Search settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over literature. What am, random joe, supposed to do about it besides joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation? I have no idea. Still, the headline might be more sensationalistic than it should be, as this paragraph shows:

But the real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.

(Emphasis added.)

I added a comment pointing out that the real response to this should lie with Congress and copyright law: at the moment, virtually everything published after 1923 is effectively under copyright. The solution is to start rolling the copyright year forward, so that 86 years (2008 – 1923) after a work is published, it automatically enters the public domain. Actually, 70 years would be nice, but the various Senators from Disney passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, making it seem unlikely to happen, so I stick to the (sightly) more pragmatic hope for 86 years as a possible reasonable length for copyright.

If the material in question isn’t in copyright, Google has no special power over it. Two problems solved at once.

* Speaking of all things Google, Nick Carr’s post “Google in the middle” has some brilliant parts and some absolutely wrong parts. Being the kind of person I am, I like to start with the wrong parts:

For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.

We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger.

But Carr misses the fact that a) mediators are easier to replace than ever, since I only have to click on another one, and b) fact a has made other mediators ever-easier to find: Hacker News has become my chief aggregator, for example, and Google has nothing to do with them. Furthermore, if I want to use a different search engine, it’s only a click away.

The web still is a friction removing machine even if Google has an unusual amount of (probably temporary) power.

On the other hand, this bit is brilliant:

As I’ve written before, the essential problem facing the online news business is oversupply. The cure isn’t pretty. It requires, first, a massive reduction of production capacity – ie, the consolidation or disappearance of lots of news outlets. Second, and dependent on that reduction of production capacity, it requires news organizations to begin to impose controls on their content. By that, I don’t mean preventing bloggers from posting fair-use snippets of articles. I mean curbing the rampant syndication, authorized or not, of full-text articles. Syndication makes sense when articles remain on the paper they were printed on. It doesn’t make sense when articles float freely across the global web. (Take note, AP.)

Once the news business reduces supply, it can begin to consolidate traffic, which in turn consolidates ad revenues and, not least, opens opportunities to charge subscription fees of one sort or another – opportunities that today, given the structure of the industry, seem impossible. With less supply, the supplier gains market power at the expense of the middleman.

Newspapers are engaged in an almost Marxian race to the bottom in terms of production, and the more efficient the Internet makes news gathering and dissemination, the worse this race will become. It was obvious to me in 2002 (which I wrote about in Media myopia and the New Yorker), when I graduated from high school, that newspapers were bound to contract enormously (and catastrophically for those employed by newspapers); I was tempted to go to a big-time journalism school and try to make it as a journalist, but a rare bout of good sense stopped me. This is why.

(Incidentally, the New York Times has also noticed that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.)

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