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there and back again

Category Archives: books

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 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.

Kindle, take 2

Okay, so after a few hours of playing around with the Kindle here’s some further thoughts on the device, in no particular order. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • The display is clearly better than the one on the Sony Reader PRS-500 (first gen): faster refresh, better contrast. I imagine it is on par with that of the PRS-505.
  • The navigation metaphor is really interesting, and quite unique. There’s this metallic-looking strip on the side that identifies lines/paragraphs/sections (depending on context) and that provides visual feedback of operations that take time. In particular, it seems to draw the eye’s attention while the page is “flipping” which as I mentioned before is slightly distracting at first (but then is not noticeable). The strip is probably quartz-based (like the liquid crystal in digital watches) since it updates too fast to be an eink variant.
  • Specifically, the navigation metaphor mixes the physical with the virtual in a strange, but appealing way. There’s the idea of “moving” this almost physical marker (in the form of the metallic strip) to select what you want and then click or press enter to “activate” it depending on context. This is in contrast to the navigation Sony did in their reader, which uses the ink itself to mark selection and is clunky and slow. I don’t know yet if the Kindle’s navigation is genius or folly yet, but it’s definitely original, and it’s worked well so far.
  • The purchase system is so simple, it’s evil. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just click, click, and you’re done. The book is there in seconds and you’ve spent the money (they do have a link in the final page that lets you back out of the transaction if you want, which is great). Between this, the auto-configuration (the device came pre-configured with my account out of the box) and wireless connectivity included and working out of the box, Kindle sets a new bar for out-of-the-box experience, even going beyond iPod (and I don’t say that lightly). Great job guys!
  • Speaking of out-of-the-box experienceMike was wondering what happens if you buy the device for someone else. Well, by default it’s tied to your account, but as soon as you buy it you get access to a page that lets you “unlink” the device and then you’d have to “link it” to the other Amazon account (not sure if “linking” and “unlinking” are the terms Amazon uses, I don’t think so :)).
  • Also cool is that you can link more than one Kindle to a single Amazon account, in effect sharing books across them, say for the whole family.
  • Web navigation is decent, if limited. Russ came over and we geeked out with the device for a bit, looking at the user agent (Mozilla-Compatible, NetFront) and other headers it was sending. Amazon is proxying the content, which isn’t a surprise. Net access is fairly fast (and free!), and Mowser works great on it! Faster even though in effect it’s going through two proxies (Amazon, then Mowser).
  • In Default Mode, the browser ignores CSS/styles, and it behaves more like a limited-capabilities mobile browser. But turning on Advanced Mode enables them. Oh, and you can turn on Javascript support too! (off by default).
  • Emailing content in works really well: just send an email to your chosen email address for the kindle with an attachment that is the document/images you want to send, and after a few minutes it shows up in the device. It’s also available, properly transcoded, in your Amazon online library. Really well done. There’s a $0.10 (10 cent) charge to do that, but you can also do the transcoding for free and upload the file manually through USB.
  • USB mode is simple: just plug it in, and it shows up as a disk, disabling any other functions in the device. You can dump PRC, MOBI, TXT, and Amazon’s own AZW files (whatever those are). As a quick test I downloaded the PRC version of Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” put it in the documents folder, and presto, there it was.
  • You can also download the AZW files from Amazon’s digital library to your PC and then manage them from there, adding them/removing them to the device through USB. Very interesting. Amazon is acting as a sort of automatic backup, but in theory you could do away with Amazon completely.
  • Oh, and yeah, some of the navigation keys in the border tend to be pressed a bit too often by mistake. Probably something I’ll snap out of, but if it was me, I’d make them not go all the way out to the edge, which exposes them more.

Phew! That’s it for now. Overall, a great little device, if slightly odd-looking at first, you completely forget about that in 2 minutes. Now to ponder the question of how to automate the process of converting content for it in an easier way…

Kindle!

So yesterday morning I ordered a Kindle (as one of my first conscious acts of the day :)) and it arrived a few minutes ago.

Lightning Quick Impressions

  • The Packaging is cool, very Apple-like. It’s like a book! Nicely done.
  • The device has charge out of the box. Boot it up, and it already knows my name. Yes, some corner of my mind says that there’s privacy concerns in there somewhere, but there’s something incredibly cool about opening a box, turning on a device and having it know who you are. I’m sure I’ll recover and think it’s creepy later. Or maybe not.
  • Flip pages. There’s seemingly two dozen “next” and “previous” buttons and ways of navigating. I wonder if I’ll be hitting them by mistake all the time. That’s definitely very much notlike Apple.
  • A couple of excerpts and the NYT, which I had configured yesterday, are already in the device, synced. Nice.
  • Finally, I go to the “Experimental” menu (the menu bar selector is weird, but cool!) and choose Basic Web Browser. Enter my blog’s address. It loads it. Holy moly. Fast. No configuration. Nothing. I have to collect my jaw from the floor. There’s something to be said for seamless, and this rivals apple.

More later after I play with it some more!

raid on the sun

This weekend I finished reading Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel’s Secret Campaign that Denied Saddam the Bomb by Rodger W. Claire. It is the inside story of a secret Israeli mission that in 1981 took down Saddam’s first, biggest (and, as it would turn out, most successful) nuclear weapons project by destroying the Osirak reactor (Osirak being the Arabic conversion of Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god). The Israeli Air Force used eight of the then-new F-16s for the mission, taking the planes beyond the limits of their stated capabilities, so much so that for years afterwards the pilots and those involved in the mission (which, even as it was executed, were never more than a few dozen people) would have to constantly live with rumors that they hadn’t in fact done it the way they had, but that they had used any number of other exotic options (for example, that commandos had planted the explosives on the ground, something pretty far-fetched given the situation in Iraq at the time).

The raid also had very significant geopolitical consequences that extend through to the present day, most obviously in the current war in Iraq (or rather, how the current war started) but also in the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 80’s, the Gulf War, and the balance of power in the middle east.

Anyway, it’s one of those true stories that reads like a thriller, highly recommended if you’re into this sort of thing.

on neuromancer

Ok, next up in my list of belated blog posts is Neuromancer, more specifically my thoughts about the book. Russ recently read the book and was criticizing the ending as a “sort of afterthought”.

Here’s my take on it: it’s not an afterthought but rather a very concrete expression of an idea that we’ve come to call The Singularity. The whole point of the Singularity is that change is happening so fast that you can’t predict what comes next. After the singularity the rules and constructs we had before about operating in the world, in whatever specific context we’re dealing with, become quite simply meaningless. Not only we can’t predict what will happen after it, you can’t even see it coming. This is exactly what the ending of Neuromancer feels like. And if you ask me, that’s why. ๐Ÿ™‚

As far as the Neuromancer movie, it’s been rumored, well… forever. Gibson himself has said on his blog that he’s “forgotten more neuromancer film deals than you’ve ever heard of,” which sounds about right.

An interesting tidbit that (that I’ve written about in the past) is that Gibson discussed in a post was that when Neuromancer came out, it was after Bladerunner was released, and he was terrified that everyone would see it as a derivative work of some sort, even if he had started it years before.

Quote:

Bladerunner came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. I was about a third of the way into the manuscript. When I saw (the first twenty minutes of) Bladerunner, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume Iโ€™d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film. But that didnโ€™t happen. Mainly I think because Bladerunner seriously bombed in theatrical release, and films didnโ€™t pop right back out on DVD in those days. The general audience didnโ€™t seem to get it, relatively few people saw it, and it simply vanished, leaving nary a ripple. Where it went, though, was straight through the collective membrane to Memetown, where it silently went nova, irradiating everything from clothing-design to serious architecture.

Yep, he didn’t have to worry, and the near-simultaneous arrival of these two masterpieces ended up heralding the beginning of cyberpunk in two mediums at once. Incidentally, Bladerunner is about to be re-released late this year in a “Definitive Cut” edition, fully remastered. Can’t wait.

Btw, my other favorite Gibson Singularity (yeah, there’s a pattern here…) is the ending of All Tomorrow’s Parties (which incidentally features a character, Laney, who can “see” singularities before they happen), in which Rei Toei, a virtual character, becomes, well, real. Both characters also appear in Idoru, and both books are part of the so-called “Bridge Trilogy.”

ps: the image is the cover of the original print edition of Neuromancer. ๐Ÿ™‚

spook country

At the end of a process that William Gibson started in July 2005 there’s Spook Country, the latest from the master, which will be out tomorrow.

It’s interesting to me that everywhere, including most recently this News.com article about the book, Gibson is mentioned as “[having] predicted many of the changes technology has brought about”. Now, he has predicted a lot of things, but in almost subliminal fashion in my opinion, and his own comments on how something as crucial as the concept of cyberspace came about bear me out. In the documentary No Maps for These Territories Gibson recounts about how he came up with the idea of cyberspace (this documentary, btw, is great if you’re into that sort of thing… just Gibson in the back of a limo talking for an hour and a half!). So how did it start? Was it the then-emerging Internet? Was it computer networks? Computers even, at all? Nope. It was the first time he saw a someone with a walkman, lost in their own world of music, when he visualized it: “Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Gibson admits he’s never been a computer geek — he doesn’t know current technology all that much (according to what his blog, he finds eBay more interesting than Second Life, which is pretty striking.

As an aside, In the book page, Amazon also has a fascinating proposal for the book that, according to them, bears only a slight resemblance to the finished book.

The book is set in early 2006, perhaps more anchored on reality than even Pattern Recognition — of which I happen to own a signed copy. ๐Ÿ™‚ Can’t wait to read it!

the four steps to the epiphany

The Four Steps to the Epiphany is, according to Marc, so good that you should “Buy it, read it, keep it under your pillow and absorb it via osmosis.” Enough said.

book of the week: managing humans

A book that came out a week or so ago was Managing Humans: Biting and Humurous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager, written by Michael Lopp, aka Rands. Here’s Rands’ entry announcing on the book.

I’ve met Michael and read Rands, and they’re both wonderful people :). I ordered the book as soon as it came out. I will confess that my schedule this week has prevented me from reading more than a couple of chapters but I know what’s in there, and it’s great (a lot of the book is based on entries from Rands in Repose). This one’s a must-read, especially if you share with us that strange, high-speed, high-adrenaline, manic, fun space otherwise known as the internet/software industry.

One thing that is not in the book is the world renowned ๐Ÿ™‚ Rands Vegas System. So, that, you’ll have to read on the weblog, and you should, because it’s a riot.

Anyway, back to the book: go get it!

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