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the importance of Interstellar

iDo not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

                                                    Dylan Thomas (1951)

Over the last few years a lot of movies -among other things- seem to have shrunk in ambition while appearing to be”bigger.” The Transformers series of movies are perhaps the best example. Best way to turn off your brain while watching fights of giant robots and cool explosions? Sure. But while mega-budget blockbusters focus on size, many of them lack ambition and scope. Art, entertainment, and movies in particular, given their reach, matter a lot in terms of what they reflect of us and what they can inspire. For all their grandiose intergalactic-battle-of-the-ages mumbo jumbo, Transformers and other similar movies always feel small, and petty. Humans in them are relegated to bit actors that appear to be props necessary for the real heroes (in this case, giant alien robots) to gain, or regain, inspiration and do what they must do. And always, always by chance. Random people turn into key characters in world-changing events just because they stumbled into the wrong, or right, (plot)hole.

Now, people turned into “the instruments of fate (or whatever),” if you will, is certainly a worthwhile theme and something that does happen. But stories in which the protagonists (and people in general) take the reins and attempt to influence large-scale events through  hard work, focus, cooperation, even -gasp!- study, became less common for a while. Art reflects the preoccupations and aspirations of society, and it seems that by the mid-to-late 2000s we had become reliant on the idea of the world as reality TV – success is random and based on freakish circumstances, or, just as often, on being a freak of some sort. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to science fiction — westerns, for example, declined in popularity but also turned “gritty” or “realistic” and in the process, for the most part, trading stories of the ‘purity of the pioneering spirit’ or ‘taming the frontier’ with cesspools of dirt, crime, betrayal and despair.

Given the reality of the much of the 20th century, it was probably inevitable that a lot of art (popular or not) would go from a rosy, unrealistically happy and/or heroic view of the past, present, and future, to a depressing, excessively pessimistic view of them. Many of the most popular heroes in our recent collective imaginations are ‘born’ (by lineage, by chance, etc) rather than ‘made’ by their own efforts or even the concerted efforts of a group. Consider: Harry Potter, the human characters in Transformers (and pretty much any Michael Bay movie since Armageddon), even more obviously commercial efforts like Percy Jackson or Twilight along with other ‘young adult’ fiction and with pretty much all other vampire movies, which have the distinction of creating ‘heroes’ simultaneously randomly and through bloodlines, the remake of Star Trek turned Kirk joining Starfleet into something he didn’t really want to do; the characters in The Walking Dead; the grand-daddy of all of these: Superman… and, even, as much as I enjoy The Lord of The Rings, nearly everything about its view of good and evil involves little in the way of will and intent from the main characters. Characters talk a great deal about the importance of individuals and their actions, but in the end they’re all destined to do what they do and the key turning points are best explained as either ‘fate’, simply random, or manipulated by people of ‘greater wisdom and/or power’ like Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and so on. Good and evil are defined along the lines of an eugenics pamphlet in a way that gets to be creepy more often than not (the ‘best’ are fair-skinned, with blue or green eyes, and from the West, the ‘worst’ are dark-skinned, speak in hellish tongues and are from the East, along with an unhealthy obsession with bloodlines and purity of blood, and so on; Gandalf “progresses” from Gray to White, while Saruman falls from being the leader as Saruman the White into shrunken evil serving Sauron, the Dark Lord… as “Saruman of Many Colours”… you get the idea).

All of which is to say: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in this environment good Science Fiction in general and space exploration SF is always relegated a bit, particularly in movies. There is nothing random about space exploration: it requires an enormous amount of planning, study, effort, hard work, and money. You can’t inherit a good space program. It has to be painstakingly built, and supported, across decades. When a not-insignificant percentage of society flatly discards basic scientific theories in favor of religious or political dogma while giving an audience to Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, it’s not illogical for studios to finance another animated movie with talking animals than to push people beyond their comfort zones.

Even so, there’s always been good SF, if perhaps not as frequently as SF fans would like. And over the last 20 years we have started to see  Fantasy/SF stories that combine a more “realistic” view of the world, but mixed in with the more idealistic spirit of movies like The Right Stuff. In these we have characters succeeding, or at least ‘fighting the good fight’, through exertion of will, the resolve to change their reality. And even if there’s an element of ‘fate’ or chance in the setup, the bulk of the story involves characters that aren’t just pushed around by forces beyond their control. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Avatar, Serenity, most of Marvel’s new movies: Iron Man, Captain America, The AvengersWatchmen. In books, the Already Dead series and the Coyote series, both of which could make for spectacularly good movies if ever produced. In TV, Deadwood, which is perhaps the best TV series of all time, was a good example of the same phenomenon — it felt realistic, but realistically complex, with characters that weren’t just swept up in events, and that exhibited more than one guiding principle or idea. We got ‘smaller’ movies like Moon that were excellent, but large-scale storytelling involving spaceflight that wasn’t another iteration of a horror/monster/action movie is something I’ve missed in the last few years.

What about last year’s Gravity? It was visually arresting and technically proficient but fairly mundane in terms of what actually happens. It’s not really inspiring — it’s basically the story of someone wrecking their car in the middle of the desert and having to make it to the next gas station… but in space, the focus on experiencing a spiritual rebirth, and in case we were confused about the metaphor the see the main character literally crawl out of mud and water and then slowly stand and start to walk. Bullock’s character in Gravity is also one of those guided by circumstances, frequently displaying a lack of knowledge about spaceflight that even the original monkeys that flew in the early space missions would have slapped their foreheads about.

Which brings me to Interstellar. No doubt it will be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (with reason) and with Gravity (with less reason). Interstellar is more ambitious than 2001 in terms of science, matching it or exceeding it in terms of story scope and complexity, while leaving Gravity in the dust.  2007′s Sunshine shares some themes and some of the serious approach to both science and fiction (… at least the first 30 minutes or so, afterwards it shares more with Alien) as well as with the (in my opinion) under-appreciated Red Planet (2000) and even some elements of the much less convincing Mission to Mars. It also reminded me of Primer in terms of how it seamlessly wove pretty complex ideas into its plot.

We haven’t had a “hard” SF space movie like this for a whileKey plot points involving gravitational time-dilation, wormholes, black holes,  quantum mechanics/relativity discrepancies… even a 3D representation of a spacetime tesseract (!!!!). 2001 was perfect about the mechanics of space flight, but Interstellar also gets as deep into grand-unified theory issues as you can probably get without losing a lot of the audience, and goes much further than 1997′s Contact. There are some plot point that are weak (or, possibly, that I may have missed an explanation for, I’ll need another viewing to confirm…), and sometimes there are moments that feel a bit slow or excessively, shall we say, ‘philosophical’, although in retrospect the pauses in action were effective in making what followed even more significant.

Comparisons and minor quibbles aside, Interstellar is spectacular; the kind of movie you should, nay, must watch in a theater, the bigger screen the better, preferably on IMAX.

The movie not only has a point of view,  it is unapologetic about it. It doesn’t try to be “balanced,” and it doesn’t try to mix in religion even as it touches on subjects in which it frequently is mixed in the name of making “all points of view heard.” Interstellar is not “anti religion” … and it is not pro-religion either. There’s a fundamental set of circumstances in the plot that allows the movie to sidestep pretty much all of the usual politics and religion that would normally be involved. Perhaps someone can argue whether those circumstances are realistic (although something like the Manhattan project comes to mind as an example of how it can actually happen). But the result is that the movie can focus almost exclusively on science, exploration, our ability to change things, either individually or in groups.

This, to me, felt truly refreshing. Everything that has to do with science these days is mixed in with politics and/or religion. This also helps the story in its refusal to “dumb things down”…  its embrace of complexity of ideas, even if less focused on a lot of specific technical details than, say, Apollo 13 was, which is a natural result of having the Apollo data at hand.

How many people, I wonder, know by now what NASA’s Apollo program really was? Sometimes it seems to be relegated to either conspiracy joke material or mentioned in passing to, for example, explain how your phone is more powerful than the computers that went to the moon. Somehow what was actually attempted, and what was actually achieved, isn’t remarkable anymore, and the true effort it took is less appreciated as a result. With that, we are making those things smaller, which gives us leeway to do, to be less. It makes “raging against the dying of the light” sound like a hopelessly romantic, useless notion. It justifies how approaching big challenges these days frequently happens in ways that makes us “involved” in the same way that Farmville relates to actual farming. Want to feel like you’ve solved world hunger? Donate $1 via text to Oxfam. Want to “promote awareness of ALS”? Just dump a bucket of ice water on your head. Want to “contribute in the fight against cancer”? Add a $3 donation while checking out of the supermarket. No need to get into medicine or study for a decade. Just bump your NFC-enabled phone against this gizmo and give us some money, we’ll do the rest.

I’m not saying that there is no place for those things, but recently it seems that’s the default. Why? Many commentators have talked about how these days we lack an attitude best described by Kennedy’s famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country”. But I don’t think the issue is not wanting to do anything, or not wanting to help. I think the issue is that we have gotten used to being scared and feeling powerless in the face of complexity. We’ve gone from the 60′s attitude of everyone being able to change the world to feeling as if we’re completely at the mercy of forces beyond our control. And we’ve gone overboard about whatever we think we can control:  people freaking out about the use of child seats in cars, or worrying about wearing helmets when biking, while simultaneously doing little as societies about the far greater threat of climate change.

When education was a privilege of very few, very rich people, it was possible for pretty much everyone to accept a simplistic version of reality. That was before affordable mass travel, before realtime communications, before two devastating world wars and any number of “smaller” ones. Reality has been exposed for the truly messy, complicated thing it is and always was. But instead of embracing it we have been redefining reality downwards, hiding our collective heads in the sand, telling ourselves that small is big. Even heroism is redefined – everyone’s a hero now.

Interstellar is important not just as a great science fiction movie, not just because it is inspiring when it’s so much easier to be cynical about the past, the present or the future, but also because beyond what it says there’s also how it says it, with a conviction and clarity that is rare for this kind of production. It’s not a coincidence that it references those Dylan Thomas verses more than once. It’s an idealistic movie, and in a sense fundamentally optimistic, although perhaps not necessarily as optimistic about outcomes as it is about opportunities.

It’s about rekindling the idea that we can think big. A reminder of what we can attempt, and sometimes achieve. And, crucially, that at a time when we demand predictability out of everything, probably because it helps us feel somehow ‘in control’, it is also a reminder in more ways than one that great achievement, like discovery, has no roadmap.

Because if you always know where you’re going and how you’re getting there you may be ‘safe’, it’s unlikely you’ll end up anywhere new.

here’s when you get a sense that the universe is telling you something

In the same Amazon package you get:

    The latest Thomas Pynchon novel.
    The World War Z blu ray.
    Soup.

Telling you what exactly…. well, that is less clear.

ghost stories

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

 Paul Auster, Winter Journal

Solipsistic. That’s the word I’m looking for.

We all experience solipsism at times, and consciously applied it can be a refuge, even if not quite a philosophy. A natural reaction, probably, at the attack on the ego that are shared experiences. After all, if nothing is real, nothing can hurt you. Right? Biographies can bridge the gap, to climb out of the hole, at least briefly. They’re also about ghosts, beyond the more classical definition of the word: the ghosts of who yourself and others were.

Ghost stories. The ethereal presence of past selves that hang around us, unbidden, unshakable.

I’ve been re-reading three this week. Two autobiographies, neither of which, perhaps appropriately, was written in the first person, and one biography.

The first is Winter Journal by Paul Auster. Maybe not his best work, but still worthwhile. Subdued, fragmentary. Nowhere near the power of The Invention of Solitude. Written in the second person, it feels disembodied at times even as he describes the physical in detail: “a catalog of sensory data,” he says at some point, and after all this is much of what consumes life, living, death, dying. The narrative nudges, rather than pushes, forward. It ends up feeling like a meditative exercise.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the second book, is on the other hand like being thrust into the edge of a tornado. You can see the calm center of the storm, integral to it but out of reach, as you spin wildly on its edges. This is may also not Rushdie’s best, but to place it against works of fiction, however autobiographically informed they may be, is a disservice in my mind. “Life and death” feels real in these pages, and I doubt any one of us could have done better at navigating the choices he faced. Fear is palpable, so is anger: he could have easily borrowed the title from his 2001 book: Fury. Writing it in third person as he did may have been the only way to frame these experiences.

Rushdie’s celebrity status is responsible for a lot of the negative reaction towards this book, but it’s an important work, and I tend to ignore what surrounds the celebrity obsession within the book, wives, girlfriends, meeting Bono… and focus instead on the struggle around the fatwa and The Satanic Verses. Self-publishing is revolutionary and is happening in this area is important and in any case would happen no matter what. But disintermediation can have the effect of, um, disintermediating and therefore exposing bare an artist, leaving them without a support structure. What would happen today, I wonder, if instead of principled editors and publishers all that stood between an artist and a murder proclamation was… the complaints department at Amazon?

I wonder.

This applies more broadly. The very force that gives everyone a voice may be also be empowering those who want nothing but to take our voices away (think China, or Iran, or Syria, or…).

Irony.

Which brings me to Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max, and perhaps the best book I read last year. Here, finally, a biography written in third person about a third person. It could also have been subtitled “DFW’s Battles With Irony And Addiction,” although it didn’t deal exclusively with that of course, and I use the word “with” carefully here, since it doesn’t univocally mean against. What follows is a brief passage that illustrates well not only some of these ideas but also makes visible to different degrees strands that are woven throughout the book and the story, and DFW’s life.

America was, Wallace now knew, a nation of addicts, unable to see that what looked like love freely given was really need neurotically and chronically unsatisfied. The effect of Leyner’s fictional approach to life—mutated, roving, uncommitted—like that of Letterman and Saturday Night Live—was to make our addiction seem clever, deliberate, entered into voluntarily. Wallace knew better. And now he was far clearer on why we were all so hooked. It was not TV as a medium that had rendered us addicts, powerful though it was. It was, far more dangerously, an attitude toward life that TV had learned from fiction, especially from postmodern fiction, and then had reinforced among its viewers, and that attitude was irony. Irony, as Wallace defined it, was not in and of itself bad. Indeed, irony was the traditional stance of the weak against the strong; there was power in implying what was too dangerous to say. Postmodern fiction’s original ironists—writers like Pynchon and sometimes Barth—were telling important truths that could only be told obliquely, he felt. But irony got dangerous when it became a habit. Wallace quoted Lewis Hyde, whose pamphlet on John Berryman and alcohol he had read in his early months at Granada House: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” Then he continued: “This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. That was it exactly—irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say.”

D.T. Max., Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

Life. Addiction. Irony. Death. There are no simple, clean, tidy answers, and fragmentary is an appropriately recurring idea.

DFW, commenting on Infinite Jest once said that the novel was “[…] sort of what it’s like to be alive […] really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the twentieth story of a building.”

Indeed.

On Borges and Languages, or, On rigor in translations

In the process of writing something else I wanted to use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Del rigor en la ciencia. I ended up doing my own translation of it, and it seemed worthwhile to document why. (Note: I will use italics for Spanish words throughout the text, for clarity).

This short story (quite short actually, less than 130 words), was first collected in Historia universal de la infamia (“A universal history of infamy) and later in El Hacedor (“The Maker”). It is of the “recovered text” genre, supposedly dating to the year 1658.

The English translation quoted most frequently is by Andrew Hurley (Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998). Hurley translates the title as “On Exactitude in Science” and that’s where my disagreements with his version begin.

First, the word “Rigor” from the Spanish title is translated by Hurley as “Exactitude.” However, “Rigor” (which is spelled the same in English and Spanish) is more than just “Exactitude.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines rigor as “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful; severity or strictness; (rigors) harsh and demanding conditions,” which is roughly equivalent to the definition of the Spanish word by the Real Academia Española (although the Spanish word includes other meanings that are not exactly the same, but closely related to the ones used by the OED).

Second, the word “Exactitude” exists in Spanish: “Exactitud.” Borges would have used it if that’s what he wanted to convey.  The structure “Rigor en…” is frequently used in Spanish, and in this case it actually conveys accurately the Latin cultural perception of Science as being not just exact but also strict, even severe, a perception that is far more muted, if at all present, in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The argument using “Exactitude” could be that “rigor in science” would be a somewhat archaic phrasing, but this is actually something that works to our advantage given the supposed origin of the text in the 17th century.

Third, Hurley also capitalizes the words “Exactitude” and “Science” in the title, whereas the original Spanish text does not. This matters because in this particular story Borges actually turned several words into their “proper” form (e.g. Nouns into Proper Nouns), using the effect of capitalization to expand the importance of those words. Critically, this use of capitalization places the text in a historical context — use of capitalization was not generally properly codified prior to the 18th century in either English or Spanish (for just one example of archaic use of capitalization in english, see George Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” starting with Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”)

Within the text, other differences in tone and depth of meaning become visible:

Spanish Original: “Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados […]”

Hurley’s translation: “In time, those Unconscionable Maps […]”

My translation: “In time, these Excessive Maps […]”

To start, “estos Mapas” is “these Maps,” not “those Maps.” While I can see why Hurley would choose “those” here, I have no doubt that Borges would have used “esos” or “aquellos” if his intention was to say “those”. Then there’s the translation of “Desmesurados” as “Unconscionable” which on one hand captures some of the feeling of the Spanish word but not all. Lacking context “Desmesurados”  means “Without Measure,” but in this context I’d actually say that “Unconscionably Excessive” or “Unmeasurably Excessive” is probably the most accurate reflection what Borges was going for. I ended up using only “Excessive,” exchanging brevity for lack of verve and depth. 

Another example can be found in the following partial sentence:

Spanish Original: “Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil […]”

Hurley’s translation: “The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless […]”

My translation: “Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless […]”

Hurley here introduces another proper noun (“Forebears”) which isn’t even included in the original, and demotes “Following,” by reversing the capitalization of the word. In the process he affects, in my view, the weight implied by “Generaciones Siguientes” and not in a good way (he makes this mistake in the opposite direction with the word “Relic” in the last sentence).

Hurley translates “entendieron” as “saw” but I think there’s no reason to avoid the direct translation “understood” since it maintains the implication of understanding not just as the cognitive process but also as seeing or realizing something. Hurley’s addition of a comma before “saw” also affects the pace of the sentence for no good reason.

He also changes “Adictas” (“Addicted”) to a much more mellow “not so fond of” from the original, much harsher implication of addiction (with a capital “A” no less!). If we recontextualize the change into a more common setting we can see the damage this causes to the text. Compare “Joe was less Addicted to heroin after that” to “Joe was not so fond of heroin after that.”

I did have some qualms about using “dilated Map” here instead of Hurley’s “vast Map” but once more I defer to Borges on this. Using “dilated” for a map (“ese dilatado Mapa”) is pure literary license and not the way in which you’d ascribe vastness to a map either in English or in Spanish, so there’s really no reason not to use the English word (“dilated”) that is the exact translation of the Spanish text to maintain the mental image that Borges was going for.

There are other specific changes I made, but need to work on other things. So, without further ado, here are the original, my translation, and Hurley’s for comparison.

Spanish Original

“Del rigor en la ciencia”, by Jorge Luis Borges

. . . En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

My English Translation

On rigor in science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Andrew Hurley’s English Translation, in Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998.

On Exactitude in Science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

- Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

kindle paperwhite: good device, but beware the glow

For all fellow book nerds out there, we close the trilogy of kindle reviews for this year, now moving on to a look at Kindle Paperwhite, adding to the plain Kindle review and the Kindle Fire HD.

This device has gotten the most positive reviews we’ve seen this side of an Apple launch. I don’t think I’ve read a single negative review, and most of them are positively glowing with praise. A lot of it is well deserved. The device is light, fast, and the screen is quite good. The addition of light to the screen, which everyone seems bananas about, is also welcome, but there are issues with it that could be a problem depending on your preference (more on that in a bit).

A TOUCH BETTER

Touch response is better than the Kindle touch as well. There are enough minor issues with it that it’s not transparent as an interface — while reading, it’s still too easy to do something you didn’t intend to do (e.g. tap twice and skip ahead more than one page, or swipe improperly on the homescreen and end up opening a book instead of browsing, etc.) but it doesn’t happen so often that it gets in the way. Small annoyance.

Something I do often when reading books is highlight text and –occasionally– add notes for later collection/analysis/etc. Notes are a problem in both Kindles for different reasons (no keyboard in the first, slow-response touch keyboard in the second) but the Paperwhilte gets the edge I think. The Paperwhite is also better than the regular Kindle for selection in most cases (faster, by a mile), with two exceptions being that at the end of paragraphs it’s harder than it should be to avoid selecting part of the beginning of the next, and once you highlight a the text gets block-highlighted as opposed to underlined, which not only gets in the way of reading but also results in an ugly flash when the display refreshes as you flip pages. Small annoyances #2 and #3.

Overall though, during actual long-form reading sessions I’d say it works quite well. Its quirks appear of the kind that you can get used to, rather than those that you potentially can’t stand.

THE GLOW THAT THE GLOWING REVIEWS DIDN’T SPEND MUCH TIME ON

Speaking of things you potentially can’t stand, the Paperwhite has a flaw, minor to be sure, but visible: the light at the bottom of the screen generates weird negative glow, “hotspots” or a kind of blooming effect on the lower-screen area that can be, depending on lighting conditions, brightness, and your own preference, fairly annoying. Now, don’t get me wrong — sans light, this is the best eink screen I’ve ever seen, but the light is on by default and in part this is a big selling point of the device, so this deserves a bit more attention.

Some of the other reviews mention this either in passing or not at all, with the exception of Engadget where they focused on it (just slightly) beyond a cursory mention.

Pogue over at the NYT:

“At top brightness, it’s much brighter. More usefully, its lighting is far more even than the Nook’s, whose edge-mounted lamps can create subtle “hot spots” at the top and bottom of the page, sometimes spilling out from there. How much unevenness depends on how high you’ve turned up the light. But in the hot spots, the black letters of the text show less contrast.

The Kindle Paperwhite has hot spots, too, but only at the bottom edge, where the four low-power LED bulbs sit. (Amazon says that from there, the light is pumped out across the screen through a flattened fiber optic cable.) In the middle of the page, where the text is, the lighting is perfectly even: no low-contrast text areas.”

The Verge:

“There are some minor discrepancies towards the bottom of the screen (especially at lower light settings), but they weren’t nearly as distracting as what competitors offer.”

Engadget:

“Just in case you’re still unsure, give the Nook a tilt and you’ll see it clearly coming from beneath the bezel. Amazon, on the other hand, has managed to significantly reduce the gap between the bezel and the display. If you look for it, you can see the light source, but unless you peer closely, the light appears to be coming from all sides. Look carefully and you’ll also see spots at the bottom of the display — when on a white page, with the light turned up to full blast. Under those conditions, you might notice some unevenness toward to bottom. On the whole, however, the light distribution is far, far more even than on the GlowLight.”

So it seems clear that the Nook is worse (I haven’t tried it) but Engadget was the only one to show clear shots of the differences between them, although I don’t think their screenshots clearly show what’s going on. Let me add my own to that. Here’s three images:

 

The first is the screen in a relatively low-light environment at 75% screen brightness (photo taken with an iPhone 5, click on them to see them at higher res). The second two are the same image with different Photoshop filters applied to show more clearly what you can perhaps already see in the first image — those black blooming areas at the bottom of the screen, inching upwards.

The effect is slightly more visible with max brightness settings:

What is perhaps most disconcerting is that what is more visible is not the light but the lack of it — the black areas are what’s not as illuminated as the rest before the full effect of light distribution across the display takes place.

Being used to the previous Kindles, when I first turned it on my immediate reaction was to think that I’d gotten a bad unit, especially because this issue hadn’t been something that reviews had put much emphasis on, or seemed to dismiss altogether, but it seems that’s how it is. Maybe it is one of those things that you usually don’t notice but, when you do, you can’t help but notice.

So the question is — does it get in the way? After reading on it for hours I think it’s fair to say that it fades into the background and you don’t really notice it much, but I still kept seeing it, every once in a while, and when I did it would bother me. I don’t know if over time the annoyance –or the effect– will fade, but I’d definitely recommend you try to see it in a store if you can.

THE REST

Weight-wise, while heavier than the regular Kindle, the Paperwhite seems to strike a good balance. You can hold it comfortably on one hand for extended periods of time, and immerse in whatever you’re reading. Speaking of holding it — the material of the bezel is more of a fingerprint magnet than previous Kindles, for some reason, and I find myself cleaning it more often than I’ve done with the others.

The original touch was ok but I still ended up using the lower-end Kindle for regular reading. If I can get over the screen issue, the Paperwhite may be the one touch e-reader to break that cycle. Time will tell.

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. :-)

hacker cooties

I am definitely enjoying this, the tail end of 2011, living largely in disconnected mode, barely looking at news, catching up on books and movies. Come January, there will be time for frenetic engagement with the electronic world.

Something I wanted to share though, was a fragment on Charlie Stross’s “how I got here in the end — my non-writing careers” which, if you are a fan of Stross –or, really, just a self-respecting nerd of any kind– and haven’t read you should (and if you’re not a fan of Stross, it’s probably just a matter of time… until you’ve read one of his books.)

“But for the most part, Banking IT staff — at least, in the 1990s — didn’t have a clue about the internet. I’m pretty sure some of them hadn’t even heard of the internet. And in consequence, their reaction to a phone call from some guy in a dot-com wanting to jump through the certification and approval hoops to connect his EPOS server to their network varied from bovine placidity (“whatever, dude”), to frenetic confusion (“we’ll have to set up a committee to discuss the relevant criteria for approving connecting your — what did you call it, can you spell that for me? — S-E-R-V-E-R to out network”) to panic (“aieee! Hacker cooties are coming to get us!”)”

Hilarious. Happy holidays everyone!

the story of ‘the plan’

I’ve been writing a little bit (again) this past week — or, rather, doing mostly editing of things I wrote over the last few years but somehow never got around to finish. I’m going to be publishing them through Amazon (Createspace for dead-tree versions and the Amazon Digital Text Platform for Kindle versions). Each has its own challenges, especially formatting. In the case of the print version, I continue to be amazed at the difference font makes in how we perceive what we read, and I’ve now learned more about Serif fonts than I care to mention, but I digress…

So, without further ado, here’s the first one for kindle & iphone (through the kindle iphone app): The Plan. Go get it! :-)

I wrote the first version of The Plan in Spanish in December 1999 as a sort of episodic novel that I sent around to a group of friends from Argentina over email, every day. It was, as these things usually are, written mostly for my own entertainment (and that of my friends :)). At first I wasn’t sure where I was going with it but over time the characters became a bit more formed and in the end I took all the emails and re-wrote it as a book. But it was still in Spanish.

Fast-forward a few years and when I started blogging it occurred to me to start Plan B, a ‘blognovel’ (and yeah, I coined the term, not that it caught on that much beyond a small set of mentions). The Wikipedia entry for “blog fiction” mentions my musings while working on it though. Like with The Plan, I wasn’t sure where Plan B was going at the beginning but I started out from the idea of basically following the same character a few years after the events of The Plan, and Plan B contains a bunch of scattered references to its, um, prequel, and near the end it becomes clear that the genesis for the events of Plan B lay with what happened in The Plan a few years earlier. Of course, at that point no one could get The Plan or even knew of its existence.

So after writing Plan B (which, as an aside, was left unfinished online due to, well, finishing the thesis, starting a company and all that, but I’ve now completed it and will complete republishing it) I came back to The Plan and rewrote it in English, this time with the followup of Plan B firmly in mind. The styles of writing, while similar, don’t exactly match since The Plan is really intended as a verbal narrative whereas Plan B is straight-out first-person writing, which I meant to use as a subtle device to show the evolution of the character.

I think over the last few years I’ve re-read (and tinkered) with The Plan a two or three times, and now after this final edit I came to the conclusion that this was it and I should either abandon it or publish it.

So here it is. If a few people enjoy it, then it will be worth it. :)

PS: I’ll also be publishing Plan B in the near future, but with a change to the title. Plan B will remain online but the re-published version will be expanded (a ‘director’s cut’ if you will!).

PPS: There is also another novel that I’m finishing editing. This one way more ambitious, complicated, and generally a lot darker. That one will come after these two are out. :)

october, eh?

Allow me to crack my knuckles before I start.

cracks knuckles.

That’s better.

It’s been over two months since I posted anything. I really don’t know where the hell time goes, but I hope it’s warm there.

I just got back (only last week) from a couple of weeks of much-needed vacation.

There’s of course the global financial meltdown going on (not to mention the US Presidential election) and so it’s fitting that I could spend some time reading When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, both excellent and highly recommended. Up next in my list is The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash, which pretty much called what is happening right now.

I also had a chance to re-read Brave New World and confirmed that it continues to be one of my favorite books of all time. It often happens that re-reading a book after a long time can be perilous: what you thought was great before isn’t anymore, and you rediscover not just the book but yourself as you are now, or as you were before (“Wow, I thought this was good? I really was an idiot back then.”).

It’s good to be back. Now to see if I can keep up blogging in any way, shape or form. :)

Kindle, take 3

Okay, after some more time with the device, here’s a few more thoughts (Prompted by Kyle, who started asking questions on IM. So it’s really his fault :)). Again, in no particular order…

  • The navigation buttons are really really well positioned. It’s very natural to use one side or the other to navigate forward and back, even if when you first look at it (and even when you first use it) you think “this ain’t gonna work.” It does work. Very cool
  • Newspapers are not good for the Kindle yet. Three big problems:
    1. Each day’s edition shows up as a new “Book” in the main tab, which sounds great at first, but after the first week half the screen is New York Times editions. Then you have to go into the content manager and start deleting… not great. They should automatically go away, otherwise it’s a pain.
    2. Another problem (less worrisome than the other one) is that with a lot of small articles you have to use the navigation more, which is less than ideal–and there’s a dearth of pictures, which makes the newspaper be a little less interesting.
    3. Finally, the updates. It gets updated with the actual contents of the printed edition. At the beginning of the day. After that, no more updates. Come on! What’s the point of the always-on EVDO if you don’t get daily updates for the newspapers? Newspapers are real-time these days. This bad mix of digital and meatspace is not great.

    So, the newspaper subscription is not going to work, I may try it again in the future. On the plus side, you get a 14-day trial, so I can cancel it without harm done to my bank account. :)

  • Magazines. Two types here: image-heavy, like Time, which don’t really work given the screen and the fact that, well, there are almost no images in the “Kindle edition”, and those like The Atlantic which have long articles and few images, which are perfect for the device. The Economist (if it was available) would be another great choice methinks.
  • Blogs. No, I didn’t even try subscribing to a blog. I will though, just to see what the UI is, but I’m not paying $2 a month to read rants. Sorry. 20 cents a month? Maybe. $2 is too much.
  • Power. A final interesting point is that I normally, as I do with the Sony reader, I’d leave this on all the time, since the screen draws no power. However, Amazon has decided to put in a screensaver on the thing, so if you leave it on it does suck the amps, few as they may be. I suppose that it’s inevitable given the always-on wireless, but a screensaver? Probably one of those things where you have to pretend that you have a screensaver to avoid support calls from people worried that the display would be “burned” with the current image (not possible with eInk). Anyway. As a result of the screensaver I find myself turning it on and off, which is a bit unnecessary. I haven’t charged it in a week, and it still has about half the charge :).

Separate from all this, I keep wondering what the best solution is for web navigation. Mowser gets close, but the display is so particular (given the slow refresh time) and the navigation of the device so fascinating (to me, at least) that I keep feeling this cries out for a specific solution. Maybe I’ll try to hack something together one of these days.

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