Monday, October 6, 2008

I want to go to Trona Pinnacles, Fossil Falls and Little Lake

...a neat part of the California desert near Death Valley. This is about the right time of year too. And where did I hear about it? Of all places, Huell Howser's California's Golden Parks. And I thought the Simpsons were parodying a fictional TV show!

Kindle makes me read more…& why aren’t PD ebooks better?

Now entering my 3rd month with Kindle, I still have stock complaints about fairly obvious usability problems and missed opportunities for such a device, but nonetheless it is creeping into the category of “always in my backpack”. I’ve found it makes me read more, for 2 reasons that weren’t obvious to me when I started using it.

  1. When I have time, I can read for hours on end, but I have to switch among various titles to avoid saturation. Before, I had to get up and get a different book from the bookshelf (or beach bag, or whatever). With Kindle it takes seconds to switch to another title and I don’t have to exert myself. Yes, that sounds lazy.

  2. I spend a fair amount of time evaluating a book before deciding to read it; I read editorial reviews, customer comments on Amazon, etc. The “try before you buy” feature makes this even better since I can sample a chapter or so of the book, usually instantaneously.

I’ve also been downloading a lot of public domain ebooks by some of my favorite authors–Darwin, Sun Tzu, H.L. Mencken–but I’m baffled as to why the ebook-format versions of these aren’t better., and its mobile, distribute lots of Project Gutenberg ebooks in a variety of ebook formats. But the book metadata as translated fails to pull any structure out of a book, so you don’t have a navigable TOC or index, and certainly no intradocument links (even in documents converted from HTML that contain well-formed intradocument hyperlinks). In my copious free time I hope to do better on this–a modest goal would be converting an HTML document to ebook (.prc or .azw or .mobi) format while preserving internal links.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Two weeks with Kindle…survey says “thumbs up”

So I’m back from my annual two-week “unplugged” vacation where I catchup on my non-work reading, and this year I decided to take the plunge and get an Amazon Kindle. I read about 8 books on Kindle (+5 print books) during my 2 weeks away, and here’s my initial impressions of using it.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:An outstanding replacement for mass-market and most trade paperbacks and many hardbacks. Not a replacement for technical books, articles, arbitrary PDFs, etc. A good rule of thumb seems to be that a text that could be reasonably rendered using a simple markup format like Pod or Javadoc will read well on the Kindle. Books with lots of graphs/tables/figures, complex layout, or where typography matters, will not read well.


  • User experience of browsing, buying books, etc. is nicely integrated, though browsing the Kindle Store on the device itself is a little like browsing Web 1.0 pages on a black-and-white, 640×480 computer over slow dialup. (The omission of Wifi is baffling.)

  • Pricing model for books is defensible: bestsellers $10 (typically that’s less than half price of the print hardback), mass market paperbacks around $6, older titles as low as $3. If you consider the device a sunk cost, it often makes good economic sense to buy a Kindle edition, even compared to buying a used print copy.

  • The user experience of actually reading is great. It’s lighter and easier to hold than even a mass-market paperback.

  • I’m often in the middle of several books at a time. Flipping among them is trivial and your bookmarks are automatically remembered. This will make me read more, by eliminating the minor inconvenience of getting my butt out of the chair to swap out books.

  • Most important by far: I traveled with 10.3 ounces, rather than about 15 pounds. With per-bag luggage fees, carry-on limits, and just the fact that I like to travel light, this trumps virtually every weakness of the device.


  • I’ve been carping about the lack of PDF support. (Amazon’s PDF “converter” is terrible, yielding mostly-unusable versions of anything that’s not mostly text.) However, I’m beginning to come around to the fact that this device is a one-trick pony: it’s my non-work-documents reader. I’m looking at an iRex Iliad, which has a letter-size display that’s also touch sensitive, handles PDF’s, and allows annotations with a stylus, as a companion device for technical documents. In a sense, complaining that I can’t read letter-size technical articles on this device would be a bit like complaining that a mass-market paperback is not the right format for technical books.

  • Although you can change the font size while reading, apparently you can’t change the actual font. There’s evidently one sans-serif font (Helvetica) and one serif font (blockier than Times) on the device. They’re fine to read, but you lose any aesthetics of typography. This is fine if your reading material would otherwise have been mass-market paperback; it may be an annoying omission in other cases, especially for typography geeks like me.

  • Amazingly, while the table of contents of all books I purchased were hyperlinked, neither footnotes nor indices are. It doesn’t seem like this would be hard to do in a markup format (which is evidently what’s being used here,I assume something like DocBook as opposed to a page-description format).

  • The page-flip buttons are arranged in such a way that it’s easy to hit them by accident. A simple fix would be software-controllable configuration of what those buttons do (e.g. so I could disable the ones I don’t use, since the functionality on some buttons is redundant).

  • The scroll-wheel menus are awkward for “two-dimensional” GUI displays, which crop up occasionally when you’re browsing the Kindle Store on the device itself.

  • In general, the Store UI could be streamlined to minimize the number of (SLOW) wireless roundtrips and screen redraws when exploring a book title, reading reviews, etc. I assume a forthcoming software update will fix this.

  • As is well known, the selection of titles available for Kindle is a tiny fraction of the print title selection (though still a lot better than for any other ebook reader AFAIK). But if you read as much as I do, there’s always something worth having.

  • Why does this thing have an MP3 player (which I didn’t use, and for which there is no comparable “seamless” download experience, nor any UI) but not Wifi?  Who listens to music while reading?

  • The price is way too high ($360 currently) but I’m sure it’ll go down. I’d like to see these kinds of devices more widely adopted if only for the positive environmental implications. For now, it’s a luxury for those of us who read a whole lot and are willing to pay a premium for early adoption.

  • I’m not going to wring my hands over DRM right now; Apple’s iTunes Music Store eventually became DRM-free once there was a large established market for the product (which isn’t yet true of Kindle ebooks) and a seamless buyer experience (which largely is true of Kindle), so there’s no fundamental reason this couldn’t happen for ebooks.


  • I’m going to try running Amazon’s HTML-to-Kindle converter on the output of latex2html, which usually produces a very usable HTML version from LaTeX source. That might at least give me a way to read documents for which I have the LaTeX source.

  • I’d like to identify a “one-click” formatting pipeline for putting public domain etexts (eg from Project Gutenberg) on the Kindle. Anyone know of one?

  • I’d like to see the DRM extended to allow me to “loan” a Kindle book to another user not registered to my same account. During that time, the book would be unavailable on my Kindle until the other user “returns” it. My guess is this would dampen a lot of the fair-use handwringing and be a reasonable compromise. Note that the machinery for this already exists, since you can “return” a Kindle book you didn’t mean to purchase, causing it to be erased from your Kindle before your money is refunded. (Note that you can buy up to 6 Kindles registered on a single Amazon account, and titles can be shared among those.)

  • Similarly…I’d like to be able to “borrow” one of a fixed number of circulating e-copies of a book from, say, the San Francisco Public Library.  The New York Public Library and a few others currently do this for Mobipocket format (DRM’d) ebooks, but these can’t be read on Kindle (although a hack allows non-DRM’d Mobipocket format books to be read on Kindle).

  • The decision not to include Wifi (falling back to EVDO, iPhone-style) is baffling. In Mexico I had good Wifi access but no EVDO. At home, the EVDO bandwidth isn’t great and I’d rather use my home Wifi.

  • The UI is inconsistent and sometimes confusing. What’s a “clipping” vs. a “note” vs. a “hilight” vs. a “mark”? The navigation UI for these annotation-type things is not very graceful.

BOTTOM LINE: I like it and I’m keeping it. I probably will never travel without it; the extent to which it replaces print books (especially as I’m a big library borrower) for at-home and at-work reading remains to be seen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Goldstar is not a discount outlet for tickets (GINADOT)

I write about Goldstar a lot. Part of it is that I like them and think they provide a useful service, but part of it is that I think many theaters misuse the service to their disadvantage.

To the customer, Goldstar is a place where they can get a ticket for half price. But to the theater company, it should be a place where they can get their theater and production info in front of people who might not otherwise have seen it.

If your goal is to offer half-price tickets in order to be nice to a particular group (students, TBA members, whatever), just offer them directly yourself. Surely your ticketing system allows you to set up special-priced tickets with "Promo codes" that you publish to those groups. (The open-source ticket system I created for Altarena Playhouse, Audience1st, does this.) If you’re putting stuff on Goldstar, part of your goal is to get new audiences. (Yes, part of it is to get user-written reviews and publicity, but there are sites that offer user-written reviews without having to sell discount tickets, like  Yelp and SFTheaterBuzz.)

There’s an easy way to check if Goldstar is working for you or against you. When their will-call lists are delivered, check to see how many patrons are already in your patron database vs. how many are new.

If most Goldstar customers are new to your list, Goldstar is working as designed. If most of them are already on your list, you’re selling half price tickets to people who should be targeted as subscribers—Goldstar has already served their purpose with them, and it’s time to bring them into the fold. 

You’d be amazed how often after a show the director or actors will come out and do an ask, and they’ll say “If you liked the show, tell your friends to get tickets on Goldstar.”  That makes no sense to me; they should be telling their friends to get tickets, period, and if the show sells well, Goldstar ought to have very few tickets for sale.

Goldstar’s idea of enticing new users with a “behavior-changing” discount of 50% is a good one, but there’s no reason to gratuitously leave money on the table.  Keep an eye on your Goldstar will-calls and make sure they’re working for you, not against your long-term growth.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I want to see an ebook reader bitch-slap fight

Boy, I had no clue how many ebook reader choices are already out there. Most seem to be based on eInk’s
The ebook readers from Astak look promising, but even the cheap one (5? screen) is not shipping yet. The iRex Iliad looks promising too, but expensive at USD699 for the large-screen (8.1?) version, though it does have a stylus touchscreen and seems more general than just reading (marketing copy claims you can “read comics, sketch, play Sudoku or crossword puzzles…” on it, though I prefer a one-trick pony that does its trick really well, like the beautifully designed iPod Shuffle.)

I’m no longer considering the Bookeen Cybook after one of its users reported that full-page (letter/A4) PDF files are often unusable due to the smaller screen. I intend to read not only technical books but technical papers, so that’s a dealbreaker for me, and I’m looking seriously at the Iliad as a result.

I’ve long complained that if only the Kindle supported PDF, I’d buy that, but I’m not so sure anymore: virtually all the other readers support the Mobipocket format (which has both DRM’d and non-DRM’d variants), and if there is anything worse than a DRM’d ebook format, it’s twoincompatible DRM’d ebook formats (Amazon Kindle has its own .AZW format, and while the Kindle supports Mobipocket, it’s hard for me to get behind a device whose main contribution seems to be a new DRM format).

I definitely want to have one of these loaded up with stuff before our big family vacation in August, so I guess I’ll have to make a decision by then…you’d think academics who read a lot and cart around sheaves of papers printed out from PDF files would be a great early-adopter audience, but only the iLiad seems to be targeting them…

Saturday, July 5, 2008

“Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age”

Paul Graham’s interesting book has a lot of refreshingly iconoclastic ideas around the art and craft of hacking and how that impinges on the Real World, startups, universities, language design, etc. Unfortunately the density of great stuff doesn’t quite justify reading the whole book, but I really liked the chapter called “Revenge of the Nerds” about the “evolution” of programming languages and how they are becoming more Lisp-like, to the point that we’re almost caught up to 1960. Worth a (quick) read for hackers, who will find much to identify with written in a style of discourse that’s natural to them.

Why I still don’t have an eBook reader

My typical packing list for a beach vacation: bathing suit, t-shirt, shades, and 30 pounds of books, plus geek manuscripts in PDF format. You’d think I’d be the perfect eBook candidate, being an early adopter and all. But they all suck one way or another. Never mind usability; never mind the ~$400 price tag. The dealbreaker is that the content situation is laughable, to wit:

Amazon’s Kindle has a pretty good selection, and they’re at least priced intelligently (~50% of print edition), but you can’t view PDF documents on it. Yes, I know about the “converter”. It doesn’t process tables or figures, making it useless for any technical PDF’s, which for me is most PDF’s. TheCyBook uses the Mobipocket DRM format, which is sold by dozens of half-assed retailers whose selection and reputation aren’t even a fraction of Amazon’s and whose pricing is stupid—the ebook costs the same as the print edition, and I can’t even donate it to my library when I’m done with it. But the CyBook does render PDF, so I could at least use it for geek books, technical articles,Gutenberg downloads, etc.

Some libraries have started ebook lending. But the NY Public Library, whose print collection exceeds 50 million volumes, has exactly 945 Fiction titles available in ebook form, most available as only one or the other of Mobipocket or Adobe eBook. Given that Adobe manages to crap on the user experience of every product they put out, and that Adobe Reader still holds my grand prize for crashing Firefox & Safari, I don’t even want to go near Adobe’s ebook format, which they popularized in part by distributing DRM’d versions of Gutenberg etexts—evil.

The book industry seems to be doing its very best to imitate the visionary RIAA and MPAA. I imagine at some point the book industry’s proctologist will call them to tell them that he’s found their head. Until then I’ll keep lugging dead trees around.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"I've never been on a bus"

A couple of weeks ago, waiting for my luggage at Oakland Airport, two thirtysomething young women visiting from L.A. asked me how to get to downtown SF. For about $6 each, I said, they could take a shuttle bus to the BART train and be downtown in about 30 minutes, and since I was going that way anyhow, I offered to help guide them there.

As we paid the bus fare, one of them enthusiastically said "Wow, this is cool! I've never been on a bus before!"

After they got off the train, I began trying to reconstruct a life path in which someone would never have been on a bus. I wasn't able to do it.

The folly of our abandoned railroad system

So this week I had a business trip that required me to visit Chicago and Cincinnati.  Chicago has a first-rate metro (the "El") and commuter rail (Metra), and is the railroad capital of the US if not the world, with tracks running into it literally from every major city in the Northeast, Southeast, and eastern Great Plains.

Therefore, since Chicago to Cincinnati is about the same distance as New York to Boston or Washington (where there's at least hourly train service), I naturally assumed I'd be able to take a train from Chicago to Cincinnati and fly home from there.
It turns out there is one train per day (Amtrak only--no regional service), which takes over 8 hours to travel 200 miles and arrives in Cincinnati at 3:15 AM.  Not useful.
So instead I took a 48-minute jet flight from O'Hare—which, given the travel times to/from the airports, the time to get through security, and the 3 hour flight delay due to late arrival, maintenance problems, and runway congestion, turned out to be no faster than driving and a lot more expensive not to say a pain in the ass.

Sitting in traffic between Cincinnati airport and my hotel, I noticed the railroad tracks paralleling the expressway, now used only for freight trains.  They lead directly into the beautiful Art Deco-inspired Cincinnati Union Station, which is now a science museum and shopping mall, served by a bus.