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there and back again

Monthly Archives: January 2012

guess the world doesn’t want to be eaten…

My favorite quote from Cory Doctorow’s excellent Lockdown: The coming war on general purpose computing.

This stuff matters because we’ve spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it’s just been an end-level guardian.

Must read.

PS: to avoid being unnecessarily cryptic, the subject comes from Marc’s Why software is eating the world from a few months back. Ok, ok, Marc was talking about something slightly different, but I can’t avoid making these connections. Anyway: light up, world. Embrace the Singularity! :-)

e-readers are doomed! doomed I tellsya!

Matt Alexander, at The Loop, resurfaces the by-now well-known idea that e-readers (specifically eInk devices like the Kindle) are doomed to quick extinction.

The reasoning is based on the following, quoting from the article (many of the points are repeated two or three times, “technology” in particular):

  1. Technology. The technology is “[…] inherently stunted. E-ink is slow to refresh, it has ghosting issues thanks to page caching, color is not yet practical, and full motion animation is still a long way off.”
  2. Multiple devices, oh, and the technology is terrible. “[…] does anyone really need an extra device to carry around? Yes, e-readers are cheap, but the technology behind them is set to directly intersect with the development of pixel-dense, retina LCDs, and feature-rich tablets.”
  3. Tablets = e-readers. “The Fire is sharing the Kindle name not only because it helps in marketing a new product, but because the concepts are on an inevitable path toward merging. ” — this is an idea that combines both 1) and 2) into a third meta-point.

Lost in all this is what Matt also mentions a couple of times — the “spec” advantages: ” They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight, but they do little more than present traditional literature in an electronic package.” But I’ll come back to this.

Allow me, however, to start with point 3) by allowing, that, yes e-readers aren’t tablets. And that’s a good thing. Affordances matter. If this wasn’t true, wristwatches would have disappeared long ago (we all have clocks in our phones, right? Not to mention there are clocks everywhere in any industrialized nation). This is especially true in media, since different formats don’t just allow a different physical relationship between you and the object (as would be the case in the wristwatch example), but also allow different ways of expression for content creators. These two things lead us to create millions of variants of tools that are created to fit both the task and the user. So e-readers not being tablets is not a problem, it’s an advantage.  Plus, “They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight.”

What of point 2) then? Proliferation of devices does seem to be a problem, but it’s primarily a problem that is pervasive among the nerditry (myself included). Not that nerds are the only ones that have lots of devices; what I’m saying is that we’re the only ones that think that this is a gigantic problem. People, by and large, are comfortable with the idea that different devices (or “tools” in the widest sense of the word) for different things, as long as it’s clear what they do. And in terms of proliferation, well. How many people do you know that have both iPads and iPhones? Talk about duplication of function there. In any case, e-readers aren’t competing with tablets. They’re competing with books. It’s not “one ereader vs one tablet” but rather, “one ereader vs dozens or hundreds of books”. Oh, and e-readers are “cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight”

On to point 1) — the technology. This is completely irrelevant, as anyone who has used an e-reader for long periods of time can attest. The “ghosting” issue is not noticeable for real use (as opposed to watching the display while you’re writing a review). Animations are irrelevant since it’s about books. Also, before I forget: “They are cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight.”

So let’s go back to e-readers as devices that are “cheap, lightweight, have long battery life, and operate well in direct sunlight”. :-)

This is a point that is always mentioned in these articles, and always somehow dismissed as largely irrelevant in the long term, but it’s crucial. You can get a new Kindle today (with unobtrusive ads on the “screensaver”) for $79. The most expensive one will cost you twice that. I can easily see a point in a year or two when Amazon will simply give away Kindles to people with Prime, or maybe even to anyone with an Amazon account and enough purchasing history. Meanwhile, the iPad is at $500 and the Fire at $200. And the iPad is a far, far superior product as a true “tablet.” Tablets will continue to be heavier, more expensive, and have shorter battery life, and, yes, will continue to not be quite readable under many lighting conditions. By the way, the difference in price also leads to a difference in use. You will be far less stressed about someone stealing your $79 Kindle than your $500 iPad. You will take the Kindle to the beach, and on trips, far more often. And so on.

Affordances matter. What something is replacing matters. A 3-5-10x difference in price matters. A 2-3x difference in weight matters. A 5-10x difference in battery life matters. Usability matters (particularly when it means “I can use this absolutely anywhere”).

Tablets will keep growing, mostly at the expense of PCs and laptops, and e-readers will keep selling by the millions. And, yes, many people will use tablets as e-readers, but many more will get both. Perhaps the millions of eInk readers a year are just considered a niche in today’s global economies of scale, but, in my book (semantic meta-pun intended), that’s not “doomed”. Or anything even close to it.

mini-ode to “hello, world”

“FORTRAN begat ALGOL, which begat CPL, which begat BCPL, from whence B, and then C, arose…”

I hadn’t looked at Scala in a while, so I head over to www.scala-lang.org and start looking through docs. First the tutorial, and sure enough the first thing they do is show a Hello, World example. It suddenly struck me that we may be at a point where a lot of people don’t know or even remember where this started.

The first time I was exposed to “hello, world” was, appropriately enough, in the first widely published book that included it — Kernigan & Ritchie’s “The C Programming Language.” It was 1994, and until that time I had mostly dabbled with Pascal (Turbo Pascal FTW!) and minor languages like the programming language for dBase. The pre-ANSI C version of “hello, world” simply read:

main()
{
printf("hello, world\n");
}

(the ANSI C edition I think added the obligatory #include <stdio.h> at the beginning).

This much I remembered, but was that the first use? It seemed likely…

According to the wikipedia entry on the topic, it turns out that’s not the first time “hello, world” was used as the primordial program for a language — Kernigan had used it earlier in his Tutorial Introduction to the Language B, as follows:

main( ) {
extrn a, b, c;
putchar(a); putchar(b); putchar(c); putchar('!*n');
}
a 'hell';
b 'o, w';
c 'orld';

It is fitting that C’s version was significantly simpler and clearer. :-)

It’s also interesting that to this day I still see “The C Programming Language” as the best book ever written to teach a language, or as an introduction to programming for that matter. The only one that comes to mind that could match it in terms of how perfectly the book “wraps around” its topic as well as being readable is, perhaps, “The TeXbook” (in which programming concepts play an important but not overriding role).

Good times.

ps: somewhat related — a story I heard many years ago about why C++ was called that –after starting as “C with Classes”– was that when the time came to name the successor to C, they couldn’t decide whether to call it “D” (since it would follow B and C) or “P” (since it would follow C in “BCPL”). Faced with this conundrum, the solomonic answer was to call it “C++” by just adding the increment operator to “C”. Apocryphal, you say? May be so! But for fiction, it’s good fiction. :-)

space pilot 3000

Hey! Only a decade late.

Happy New Year’s everyone!!!

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