Nice ebook reader, shame about the DRM

So the Amazon Kindle sold faster than a very hot thing on the hottest day of July; kind of proves my point really, given that it apparently sold out. I'm actually pretty surprised myself, the technology aside, given that it's a)butt-ugly and b)DRM'ed up to the eyeballs. I love the concept, I love the technology, but so often the actual implementation's a bitch after it's worked its way through a room full of foaming-at-the-mouth copyright lawyers.

So here's what I think is going to happen next:
  1. Somebody hacks the DRM on the Kindle two weeks from now: it'll be the unlocked IPhone all over again.
  2. Come the New Year, Sony and Iliad dramatically reduce the cost of their own (though DRM-free, to my knowledge) ebook readers, which currently cost twice as much at minimum as the Kindle.
I picked up a copy of the new SFX magazine on my way through Waverley Station in Edinburgh today and, lo and behold, there's me plastered all over a full page with an interview next to me, which is cool. And my jacket looks shiny.


Objects of Desire

Now that Amazon have brought out their new e-reader device, the usual torrent of caveats and dismissals have been descending from the blogging heavens in response. The same arguments recur: my handheld can do the same thing and doesn't cost XXX dollars or pounds; I can carry a real paperback book on the train/plane just as easily without needing batteries; and so forth.

I feel the need to defend these devices, in concept at least, if not in terms of the currently available - yet very pricey - lumps of hardware. Part of this defense is levying the same rejoinders that have also been wielded elsewhere:

The technology is not the same as your PDA or your laptop. It is, in fact, fundamentally different, right down to the physics employed. It can best be described in the same way I have previously explained the difference between, say, an image displayed on a television screen, and the same image printed on a piece of paper, in the context of my work as a graphic designer/layout person:
  • When you see a picture of a tree (say) on a screen, the screen is projecting light onto your eyeball. This requires quite a bit of power.
  • When you see a picture of a tree on a page, ambient light (the light from your lamp, window and so forth) is reflecting from the page and into your eye. Which means of course if you take away that source of light (turn the lamp off, close the curtains) you can't see the text anymore.
These two approaches are so fundamentally different that the means of creating the image itself are also very different. A projected image is constructed from three colours - red, green and blue, giving you RGB projection. These three colours combined - as Isaac Newton discovered - are extremely efficacious at reproducing a remarkably wide spectrum of hues and shades.

Printed colour is another matter however: this is based on the CMYK model (cyan, magenta, yellow and black [the 'k' is used since a 'b' might confuse it with blue]), these being the inks that, on paper, can produce the greatest variety of colour. Which means e-paper is particularly clever because even though it has a screen, it is instead reliant on ambient, rather than projected, light.

In other words, this is most certainly not your PDA or your laptop.

Ah, but, I hear you say: I can read a book on either a PDA or a laptop. And, if I were your optician, I might encourage you in the hopes that your rapidly failing sight might bring me business within a relatively short number of years as the strain of reading hundreds of thousands of words via traditional screen technology knackered your retinas. Well, yes you can, but speaking personally, the only time I read a book on a screen is when I'm forced to because, well, I'm writing it.

Yet the act of reading a printed book is a fundamentally passive act for pretty much the entire human race, allowing as it does for a kind of trance-state wherein we cease to be entirely aware of our surroundings. Given that a laptop or PDA is intended to be aggressively interactive, the experience is rather different when reading the same text off a traditional screen format. You are, quite literally, sitting for many hours, staring unblinking into a bright light you are shining in your own face.

One might rapidly come to the conclusion this is not healthy; nor is sitting with a laptop or desktop nearly as much fun as reading a book in your hand while waiting for the kettle to boil or for a delayed train to hurry up and arrive.

Further, as nice as real paper books are, they can in fact be terribly inconvenient. Yes, you can take one onto a train or plane. But first of all you have to go to a shop and buy it, or order it online and wait for it to arrive, then cram it into a pocket or bag where it gets crumpled. It adds to the overall weight of your luggage. Then you bring it home and have to find somewhere to store it, and fat chunks of my home are dedicated to the task of finding somewhere to put these things.

I have known people who could pack pretty much all of their possessions into a backpack and a couple of plastic bags, particularly during my student days. There's a certain implied Kerouac-esque zen freedom to this I envied even back then, given that I already had a couple of hundred books I had to tote with me from flat to flat every time I moved, not counting the endless, gigantic textbooks. I imagined myself like a turtle, slowly hauling around a vast shell made of books while others hurtled around me on their way to grand, lightly packed, adventures. And this isn't even counting the several hundred vinyl albums I owned. I liked the idea that if I wanted to simply light off somewhere - anywhere - I could do so, without having to worry about a couple of tons of paper and plastic that felt somehow essential to my sense of self-identity.

Since then I've converted pretty much my entire vinyl collection to MP3 format, contained on a single player slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes. See where I'm going? Right now I'm sitting next to several shelves of reference material. Given I'm hoping to spend a fat chunk of next year almost literally halfway around the world, the notion of accessing these works from a distance is currently somewhat lacking in the feasibility department.

Now consider the true market of the epaper readers now being marketed. They are not, in fact, aimed at people like me. They are aimed at: engineers, students, people who have to fly a very great deal as a part of their work, people in the movie business, and - possibly most particularly - the vast, manga-devouring hordes of the Far East. Engineers want to access reference works without doing their eyes in. Students want to be able to study both without ruining their eyes or breaking their backs with heavy bags full of books. Frequent flyers don't want to have to spend a substantial chunk of their preparation time ordering or buying books, and very likely don't want to be restricted to the incredibly narrow selection available in most airports. Directors, producers, scriptwriters and actors want to be able to read scripts at home as well as on the move without necessarily having to deal with humongous print-outs.

And as for manga ... well, we're talking graphic novels the size of telephone directories sold out of stores the size of aircraft hangar once you get to the Far East. Endless, sweeping rivers of manga which is now being increasingly found online. If ebook technology takes off anywhere, it's going to be in the streets and the subway carriages of Tokyo and rather a lot of other places too. In fact, I recently read some comics onscreen, using dedicated freeware readers like FFview and Jomix, having downloaded freebie issues of DC's Vertigo range. I used to devour Vertigo at an enormous rate in the first half of the Nineties. I find that I vastly prefer having electronic copies of comic books to the unwieldy, overpriced printed article. Suddenly, that which is notably expensive and unwieldy becomes immensely portable - once you take into account the potential ebook market.

Think of it: with an ebook reader, those with a secret passion for whips n'chains John Norman books - or even those who feel their deeply humanist analysis of posthuman politics rendered in experimental prose might have been better marketed without the wraparound Boris Vallejo cover - will never need feel concerned about their perceived status on the subway, since all around will simply assume you are once again rereading War and Peace on your ebook device in order to gather notes for your entirely nonexistent English thesis paper.

And let us consider one small fact which has appeared in my mind since I began writing this entry: is a book an object, or a collection of ideas? In other words, is a book the actual collection of physical pages, or is it the information contained therein? Is it possible - and I simply put this out there for consideration - that our culture has so long objectified a book as an artifact, that we have lost the means to separate the content from the container? Is it not more likely then, that future generations might see a paperback printing of a book as one possible expression of a book, rather than the book itself? In fact, would it not be philosophically healthier to return books and storytelling to the realm of pure information and ideas, thereby freeing them from the consumerist trap of 'things' which must be owned and lusted after as objects of physical desire in and of themselves?

Clearly I need to drink some more coffee.

So am I about to run out and buy an ebook reader? Well... er, no, as a matter of fact. Because they're still too expensive. But what people seem to forget is that we're still at the 'early adopter' stage, that these machines are aimed at people who can afford to splash substantial amounts of cash with relative whimsy. As with all new technologies, the price of ebook readers can be expected to fall until they become well within the means of the book-buying masses. In the meantime, the idea of having my entire, existent collection available to me on a device that doesn't hurt my eyes, that I can read in almost exactly the same way as a paperback, that can run for days on end continuously (due to extremely low power consumption), onto which I can download new material with a few simple clicks (like the new Amazon Kindle, momentarily avoiding the pertinent issue of DRM) and that I can take literally anywhere in the world without suffering the usual psychological fear of not having my book collection within easy reach does, indeed, appear rather attractive. And as for the inevitable argument that an ordinary book doesn't require batteries - well, given the very low consumption even of the early adopter models of the technology, I really wouldn't be surprised just a couple of years down the road to see solar-powered ebook readers appearing on the market.

And then, yes, I'll buy one - to supplement my existing collection of paperback books, rather than replace it.



Interzone, BBC and violence

Picked up the new Interzone today, with a picture of me next to my interview looking kind of rough. They used the dodgy photobooth pic of me I originally sent to Pan because, well, I couldn't be bothered going all the way down to London in order to have more pro shots done by whoever they use. One day I'll do something about it ... when I can be bothered. But in the meantime, I've been thinking about paying a friend who's a photographer a couple of tenners to do something at least halfway decent I could give out for those rare publicity occasions, with the advantage I don't have to go south. But the interview - on a casual glance through it - seems pretty cool, and in fact Andrew Hedgecock's done a really nice job of editing on the whole thing.

The plan to bugger off out of the country for at least a couple of months and possibly longer, depending on circumstances, continues apace. The next week will consist of booking a plane ticket for January and getting a visa sorted out.

Just back from a meeting earlier today at the BBC - I haven't been saying much about this one because I wasn't sure if it was going ahead or not, but apparently it is. I know a script editor Lizzy Gray through the scriptwriting group, and she - along with a couple of other people in the local Beeb - have been given some small funds to make a couple of very, very short dramas - not for broadcast, but purely as a kind of internal exercise for BBC staff in producing, editing, whatever. So they're doing one of mine, with the filming sometime in December.

It's only one minute long (!), very, very, very violent (we hope) and no, I don't get paid for it. But it's fun, and that's what counts. I suspect the chances of it actually being broadcast are leaning fairly strongly in the direction of 'very unlikely' but it does mean if anybody ever asks me if I'd thought of scriptwriting, I'll soon be able to say with absolute honesty that I've written a BBC drama and seen it made. That's ... one minute long.



Scrivener still feels pretty good less than a week after downloading a trial version of it, and it's proving very useful with the current part-done draft of Stealing Fire, which is currently sitting at about forty thousand words. The only drawback I've found to the software so far is the lack of a time-line function.

That was kind of annoying, until I realised the Mac version of Writer's Cafe, another piece of software aimed at planning rather than writing a novel, was completely free and contained a decent timeline program. I've never actually used a timeline generator before ... but since I downloaded this one the other day and started building a time-based framework for SF, I kind of wish I had.


Turn it Down

I picked up a pair of noise-reducing headphones - cheap ones - today, and road-tested them both on the subway and in an internet cafe in the West End with moderately loud music playing, dishes clattering and one or two people talking. Although the amount of intrusive noise was far from being reduced to zero, it was definitely reduced, and I managed to listen to some fairly laidback plinky-plonky ambient stuff on the subway home without having to whack it up to killer volume like I might normally have to. Sound quality isn't the greatest, but they did the job, being to let me work somewhere that isn't my house, with extraneous noise reduced to a level where it's a lot easier to ignore, while listening to exactly the kind of inoffensive background music that fades into the back of my mind without actively interrupting the writing flow.

I passed by Offshore on my wanders; it looked busy - very busy. Lots of people with laptops, tapping away. I felt obscurely ashamed at the idea of going in and joining them, and continued on my way. At least in Bibliocafe, you feel like you've got some sense of privacy if you go to the upstairs comfy bit. I ended up in ICafe, a door or two along, which was ... okay, but far from the best environment for what I wanted to do. I think Bibliocafe is winning out.

I'm still running Scrivener through its paces. So far it's great.


coffee and writing

I love the new ibook (not macbook, ibook). Silent. Pretty. Runs for over four hours without a recharge. Finds and connects to wifi effortlessly. I can even talk to people using skype without a headset, courtesy of the microphone built into the screen. Genius.

I used to love the Offshore cafe in the West End, but it's got too noisy. Music blaring, blaring all the time. I really need to get out of the house sometimes to write - sitting at home, it feels like the walls are closing in, so I go out. Offshore used to be quiet, comfortable, not at all noisy, at least during the summer. But it does have wifi.

I tried a place called Bibliocafe earlier today, right across the road. It's very, very nice - but no wifi: that's the killer. Otherwise, it's the perfect environment, assuming you're not unlucky and a gaggle of student girls come in and start screeching and generally bugging the hell out of me and everyone else trying to read/write/stare out the window. So now I have to spread my net a little wider. I've even been considering noise-cancelling headphones, that use a feedback mechanism to block out ambient noise, since I do tend to listen to Soma FM a lot when I'm writing.

On Bill King's recommendation, I've been getting a little more deeply into a piece of mac-only writing software called Scrivener, which comes with some very impressive recommendations on the sidebar of their webpage at www.literatureandlatte.com (See? There's the coffee connection again). I'm not one normally for splashing out on writing software, but this is only about twenty quid and I think it might actually be worth it.


What I did on my Holidays

I've been back from Taipei for almost a week now. I came home to the most miserable weather imaginable: grey sleeting rain and black churning clouds and a bitter cold wind. And lots of very depressed looking Scottish people. With weather like this, and you wonder why we all look so miserable.

Taiwan was great. Not perfect, but a lot of fun. It's also possibly to live there incredibly cheaply - I'm looking into going back over, possibly early next year, for anything between a few and several months depending on how certain visa issues work out, and whether I can get anyone to rent my flat out in the meantime. A lot of people from the States and Australia wind up there, teaching English. But a bit of a sabbatical and a break from Scotland - especially at this time of year - seems like the way to go.

I really love the cheap Sony Vaio I bought some months back, but if there's one thing I really don't love, it's Windows, particularly since I got a Mac Mini a year or two back. The Vaio ran W2000 and it was just an endless litany of crashes and software issues. In the end I got sick of it and dropped a couple hundred on a refurb 12 inch ibook from Cancom.co.uk. It's just sickeningly good, from setup through to its automatic detection of my wifi network. It's sweet to write on, like the Mac Mini, everything a portable writing experience should be. A mac notebook is something I've wanted for a long, long time.

More good reviews are still coming in, particularly this very nice one from Lisa Tuttle, who reviewed Stealing Light in The Times last week (I recall meeting Lisa a couple of times in the early Nineties when she visited the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle, and I still have a copy of Windhaven, a novel she wrote with George RR Martin some years ago):
Dakota Merrick is propelled into the centre of events against her better judgment. She is a former military pilot and “machine-head” — implants in her skull enable her to survive, but may be responsible for the trail of death and destruction in her wake. The action is intense — but it's intelligently written and thought-provoking as well.