Moving to Blogger

I never thought I’d see myself type those words, but there they are. Now that I use Google+ for such a large chunk of my on-line content generation and sharing, I thought I’d try blogging at the platform most closely integrated with it. I might be back, and if I am, I’ll say so at my Blogger blog, but until then, this is where I’ll be:

Customizing the Kindle Touch Screensavers

I’m quite fond of some of the factory-shipped screensavers that came on my Kindle Touch… but others were definitely not my style. So when I followed Yifan Lu’s easy guide to rooting your Kindle Touch and installed his Custom Screensaver package, I found I actually missed those few stock Kindle images that I felt were really good.

The process for getting those images off of the Kindle so I could choose which I want in the new custom screensaver folder was more difficult than I thought. I had to install Yifan Lu’s USB Networking package, then I had to download a disc image off of my Kindle which I needed to run Linux to mount and read.

So after all that work it made sense to me to upload the stock Kindle Touch screensavers here in case anybody else with a customer screensavers hack on their Kindle would like to use them.

You can view and download the entire collection here.

UPDATE: I have fixed the link above to actually work now.

BOOK REVIEW – The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

The Children of the SkyThe Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Fire Upon the Deep blew me away, and its prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, impressed me even further. Through these two books Vernor Vinge set and raised the bar for what I considered an amazing science fiction book to be. So it’s with shame and hesitation that I give The Children of the Sky the amount of criticism I’m about to.

First, the minor complaints I have (such as repeatedly using ridiculous terms like “frigging”, “natch” and “craphead”). They’re at least so minor I only wish to refer to them in parentheses. Done.

Now on to the real problem. I agreed with so much of Paul Di Filippo’s piece in The Barnes & Noble Review (disagreeing only with his disappointment that A Fire Upin the Deep’s “Net of a Million Lies” wasn’t expanded based upon a subsequent two decades of real-world online experience) that I’d like to proceed by stealing some of it [minor spoilers]:

…despite displaying immense cleverness and craft and heart, this is not the book we were all hoping for. Consequently, no matter how well done, it’s bound to be something of a disappointment. Why? Vinge has — temporarily, one hopes — abandoned his fascinating interstellar milieu to focus exclusively on Tines World…

…as thrilling as all this action and speculation is, the reader is still going to feel an underlying itch for a broader canvas. This itch will manifest itself most vividly in chapter 24, almost exactly halfway through the book. The monitors on the Oobii show that the currents of spacetime have pulsed, and that Tines World is part of the faster-than-light realm again. The reader’s heart jumps! Out into the Galaxy we fly! But no, it’s not to be. The tide immediately ebbs, and we are again castaways with a sigh.

The Children of the Sky is, I think, clearly the middle volume of a trilogy, and it suffers from some of those fabled longueurs associated with such bridging installments. What I suspect Vinge is building toward is a breakout of the Tines from their isolated planet and into the interstellar setting where they will play an important part in the scheme of things. That’s going to be a hell of a grand tale, and we can only hope we won’t need to wait another twenty years for its unveiling…

In a podcast interview earlier this month, Vernor Vinge explained that his first attempt at a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep began with the full text of The Blabber (a short story he wrote before A Fire Upon the Deep), which takes place further into the future where our main characters have managed to rejoin the mighty space-fearing civilizations of “the beyond”. So we know Vinge has at least thought about where the story could go next and might be able to easily jump into it in the near future.

The Children of the Sky is a good book, and shouldn’t be the least bit disappointing if you go into it knowing what to expect (a low-tech, middle book in an unfinished trilogy). I’ll definitely be reading whatever Vinge publishes next, but I hope (against hope) it’s a sequel to this sequel.

View all my reviews

Tobias Buckell on Vernor Vinge

Back in February 2010 I was pleased to discover that sci-fi novelist Tobias Buckell was as big of a fan of Vernor Vinge’s work as I am. In a long article about book pricing he mentioned that he loved Vinge so much he’d happily pay $50 to get his next book (The Children of the Sky) right away and not have to wait for it.

Now he finally has the book (it came out yesterday), and he’s as thrilled as I am:

“I’ve been waiting for a sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep almost half my life. And I’m like one of those kids who stayed up until midnight to get Harry Potter in line and raced home to read it…”

“…I’d been waiting for that book since my junior year of high school…But now that time is here! And it’s like Christmas came early for me…I wanted to write this before I disappeared for a few days. I’ve finished edits on books that I owe people, I’ve turned in articles, I’ve cleared my schedule. This is going to be fun.”

Finding Vernor Vinge

It’s no secret that Vernor Vinge is one of favorite authors. But while other authors I enjoy offer up the best social media has to offer (such as John Hodgman and Mary Doria Russell with their personal Twitter accounts and self-authored blogs), or at least have publishers interested in providing an official blog nearly incapable of missing out on the latest news and community buzz (such as Iain M. Banks’ publisher-run official website), Vernor Vinge and/or his works don’t have much of a web presence. Do a Google search for “vernor vinge”, and you’ll find a Wikipedia article, 7+ year old interviews, and some rarely updated fan websites.

So tonight I was surprised to find (as I searched Twitter for fans like me who were excited about the release of a new Vinge novel tomorrow) a short blog post written by Vernor Vinge himself just a short 7 days ago. How had I missed this?

The post was published on publisher Tor’s WordPress blog, which covers news for it’s wide array of writers and projects. While this appears to be the only post there authored by Mr. Vinge, there are other articles about his work that I would have expected to give the site a little Google-juice when searching for him.

While I still hope for a Vernor Vinge Twitter account (a fan has reserved the name for him and appears to be holding it until the author simply asks for it) or dedicated blog, in the meantime I’m thankful to have an RSS feed that filters out all posts at the Tor blog except for those tagged with #vernorvinge:

UPDATED 10/11/2011: I’ve also created a feed (using Yahoo! Pipes) to filter stories (different from the Tor publishing blog above) for articles that contain “Vinge”:

My thanks to Jayme Blaschke and/or Strange Horizons for the photo used (without permission) in my post.

I Love Goodreads, But Not Their Stars

I love Goodreads: tracking my progress in the books I’m reading, writing reviews, finding new books to read, and seeing what others are reading. But I don’t like the descriptions they give their rating stars!

As you hover your cursor over the stars when rating a book in Goodreads, the descriptions are as follows:

    1 Star = Didn’t Like It
    2 Stars = It Was OK
    3 Stars = Liked It
    4 Stars = Really Liked It
    5 Stars = It Was Amazing

I prefer Amazon’s model:

    1 Star = I Hate It
    2 Stars = I Don’t Like It
    3 Stars = It’s OK
    4 Stars = I Like It
    5 Stars = I Love It

Goodreads only has ONE option for books you truly didn’t like. But shouldn’t I be able to differentiate between books that were bad and books that were horrible or even loathsome? And shouldn’t the middle position, three stars, be the IT WAS OK/MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD rating as opposed to “I Liked It”?

More importantly, Amazon has been a popular destination for non-professional book reviews for over a decade now. When Goodreads launched in 2006, they either weren’t paying attention, or they specifically said “We think our 5-star rating system is so superior to Amazon’s (and common sense’s) that it’s worth making our users’ rating not able to be easily compared to Amazon (and other services’) users’ ratings”.

Sadly, they can’t easily change it now. If Goodreads fixes their star rating system, the thousands of ratings already made by its users will need to be updated or else be made invalid. But I’ve found Goodreads’ competitors to be lacking, and I already have friends using Goodreads too. So I’ll keep using and promoting Goodreads (it really is a great service), but with this one tiny reservation.

Readers Against DRM

I’ve really been enjoying my Kindle. I’ve even bought some e-books from Amazon instead of only reading books I could find DRM-free copies of. The little, niggling reminder in the back of my mind that the device and the e-books I was supporting were more restricted than the paper books I could buy on the shelf never went away, but I was able to justify my ignoring it with the pros of the device and formats themselves.

Then a friend of mine wrote a piece titled “Almost, Amazon” about why he couldn’t bring himself to buy a Kindle despite all the enjoyment he’d get out of it, and it made me feel guilty. We show businesses what we want by how we spend our dollars, and here I was part of the problem.

My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t see much of a problem. Sure, she’d prefer that digital books and e-book readers not have anything to do with DRM, but the DRM model is one that doesn’t negatively impact her. So she can’t donate a finished book to the library or sell it to the used book store for a couple dollars; she’s still saving money up front and getting all the e-book benefits that paper books don’t have. The pros vastly outweigh the cons. Also, she reminds me, as e-book sales increase, publishers should be able to stop worrying about digital books (legitimate and pirated) eating away at their traditional sales, and instead take such confidence in their future involving digital books that they needn’t cling to DRM. I understand that DRM is helping give publishers the confidence they need in digital publishing’s infancy, but once it’s learned to walk they should be able to stop holding its hand and let it run. I can still remember the frustrating days when it looked like there was no hope for the music industry, and now DRM’d music is a thing of the past.

But I worry about what could happen if e-books never escape from DRM the way digital music did. DRM for ebooks isn’t terribly restrictive in its current state, but the ability is there for publishers to start getting crazy without a moment’s notice. Just weeks ago Harper Collins declared their intent to start using DRM not just to prevent piracy, but to increase revenue from libraries (and one can infer they hope to make libraries less able to be useful as well). In addition to writing “Almost, Amazon”, my friend also shared a link with me that paints an even grimmer possible future; one not nearly as far-fetched as you may think.

However, I shared this and other “worse case scenarios” with my wife, and again she’s not too concerned. Even if every person in a family needed their own Kindle and their own copy of an e-book in order to read it (as opposed to sharing one copy within the family across multiple Kindles as we currently do) she says the pros of e-book outweigh such cons (her enthusiasm for e-books is impressive).

I understand my wife’s perspective, and I certainly agree with her on the benefits of e-books in general. But I’d really like to help increase the chances that once the dust has settled in this messy birth of e-books we’ll see them left with the same easy-to-share/sell/give/use abilities that paper books have. So I need to write letters to publishers, authors, and e-book DRM providers like Amazon and Adobe. I need to educate my e-book loving acquaintances on how much better it could be without DRM, and how much worse it could be if we never get rid of it, in hopes that they’ll too work to encourage publishers and sellers to end DRM. The Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books sums our demands up nicely, and the website and community its creators have developed around it is bound to be a valuable tool in the fight against e-book DRM.

I have to hope that some day a big player like Amazon will convince publishers to give up DRM and convert all existing and new e-books to open, DRM-free copies, liberating those of us who spent our money on the shackled content of today and giving everyone else sound, reliable, open access to one of the greatest technological advances of our time. If not, I hope we’ll still have paper books around in case publishers decide to use DRM to turn e-books against us.

Amazon’s Updating the Kindle Web App

So TODAY Amazon announced an update to their pitiful Kindle Web app (which previously wasn’t worth mentioning, as it just offered single chapter previews of some of their books). The new version will allow users to read entire books in their web browser without needing to install any software. It looks like Google’s bringing the heat that Sony and Barnes & Noble couldn’t.  Hooray, competition!

Kindle vs. Google eBooks

Google has released its eBooks store. While the marketing is convincing and inspiring and its selection and prices appear to be on-par with Amazon, its biggest selling point is flawed and its improvements over Amazon are in fact (so far) singular.

Google’s marketing its eBook store as the best way to access your digital book collection from across a wide range of connected devices. While they’re doing a better job advertising this function than Amazon, they’ve barely done a better job of implementing it.  They’ve added a slick web-based eBook reader (no need to install Kindle software on your Windows PC or Mac, or wrestle with WINE to get it working on Linux), but your progress on a given book in the web reader or an iOS/Android device doesn’t carry over to or from your reading of that book on a supported eInk device (such as the Nook or Sony Reader).  Google really touts this ability to pull out your phone in-line at the DMV and pick up where you left off in your book from when you were at home… but they leave it to the fine print to explain that you can’t have this if you’re using an eInk device anywhere in the mix.  Amazon doesn’t have this problem.  Read a book on your Kindle, iPhone, PC… you can pick up where you left off no matter what (the only catch being that the book was purchased and not side-loaded from a DRM-free source).

Amazon could (and should) copy Google’s eBook web reader. I expect they will eventually.  Google can’t copy Kindle’s progress syncing on ePub devices like Nook or Sony Reader unless those manufacturers allow them to publish an app for those devices that ties them into the Google eBook store (which is very unlikely).

Amazon’s continued refusal to add ePub support to the Kindle still disappoints me, but they HAVE created apps for a wide range of platforms (iOS, BlackBerry, Android, Windows/Mac) and they’ve made all of their features sync across those platforms.  The only downside to no ePub support is that I mostly have to buy from Amazon. But their competitive prices and unparalleled selection make this a non-issue.  The only Google eBooks feature I covet as a Kindle owner is the web-based eBook reader, and I expect Amazon to copy it in the near future.

The Google eBook Store doesn’t make me regret owning a Kindle. But if I were a Nook or Sony Ereader owner, I’d definitely consider buying my books from the Google eBook store from now on.


FIY: We Have a Kindle 3 (WiFi)

My mother bought a Kindle 3 (WiFi edition) for my wife and I and gave it to us as an early Christmas present. She had intended to buy us a portable GPS for our cars, but I suggested she spend her money on the Kindle instead.  My wife was more excited than I was when we actually had the device in hand, but I’ve been using it more than her so far (though this is mostly due to her enjoying Sondheim’s autobiographical coffee table book, Finishing the Hat, which isn’t available digitally).

More on my thoughts on the device and why I caved (despite my problem’s with Amazon’s anti-ePub model) when I compare it to Google’s new eBooks store in the next post!