06/18/14

The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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06/11/14

E-readers: worth the investment?


BookshelfI have a passionate, somewhat obsessive, relationship with books. Real books: paper, ink and glue. Not digital books. I have a lot of books and I treasure each one like an old friend. I love reading – I read books at least an hour every day, and usually much more. The feel of a book in my hands is a comfort and a delight.

I worked in book publishing – a dream job for anyone with a passion for reading.

I’ve never been seduced by an e-reader – even though at heart I’m a techie geek who likes hardware and gadgets almost as much as books. E-readers always seemed to cater to the pop-fiction crowd and I don’t read much contemporary fiction (mostly non-fiction: science, history, politics fill my shelves). However, I do read fiction: mostly the classics.

I also resist buying a digital book if I can’t share it, can’t keep it on a shelf to re-open later, can’t write my name on the inside, can’t clip it into a pocket or a knapsack. I like to have a small, unruly stack of books beside my bed so I can read chapters from several titles before I sleep. And books on the dining room table. Books on the toilet tank lid. Books on the floor. On the coffee table beside the couch.

An e-reader just seems so tidy.

But I suppose it’s not really very different from buying a computer game or DLC on Steam or buying vehicles on World of Tanks (which I’ve done without any philosophical pondering). They’re digital downloads, too, not actual purchases, like e-books.

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10/4/13

Digital Attachments


XCOM sniper (not Dmitrri)It’s tough to lose a solider. Especially one like Dimitri. A fine sniper, with a good kill record. I had trained him for so long, raised him from a lowly private to sergeant, then to lieutenant. He was equipped with the best gear. His accuracy had improved to a deadly asset. He was a cornerstone to my tactical approach.

He was also an investment in time and materiel. And as such, he was headed for greatness. Captain, maybe major.

Until the aliens got him. That was nasty.

Three of them swarmed his position, flanking his protection and taking him down with close melee attacks while the rest of the squad was busy defending citizens, too far to help.

Not a pretty sight.

The same battle took out Matt, the heavy weapons corporal who blasted whole blocks with his rocket launcher. Matt was caught in the blast of an exploding car outside a mall where the aliens had landed. Damn, I hadn’t counted on that when I moved him up to an overwatch position. But the aliens set the car on fire and that was that.

Our assault got caught in an ambush. We won, eventually, but it was a long fight with every inch bitterly contested. Coming back to base we were a solemn group. Two dead. Not a good thing.

Now the squad looks awfully thin, two down with rookies in their place. Big shoes to fill. And it’s not getting any easier out there, with the aliens ramping up their own technology, and getting tougher and smarter all the time. Winning this war won’t be easy. Matt I could almost afford to lose, being relatively new, but Dmitri was my best sniper.

I need to start training someone, fast. But who?

Of course it’s a game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be precise). Playing it this week has made me ponder the nature of attachment, in particular our attachment to characters in games or online. Why does it matter to us when a digital character “dies”? Or how he/she “lives”? How do we get so attached to virtual beings?

After all, it’s not like real life or death. Just a game. But yet…

Losing Dmitri irked me, but it also bothered me on a deeper level. Not simply because I had customized him, changed his suit colours, his facial hair, and imagined a background for him. He was mine. Or me. I’m not sure which. There was an emotional link. Not the easiest thing for a person who values logic and skepticism.

When the aliens gutted Dmitri, I was torn between restarting at the last save-game position and playing the deus ex machina role to save him, or letting the narrative run as it played out. Starting again felt like cheating. Letting him die felt like I had failed him. It. Dmitri wasn’t real, of course. But he/it felt like he was, at times. The narrative won, but not without misgivings.

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05/4/12

Gone to the Dark Side


iPadYes, I have been recruited to the Dark Side: I have an Apple iPad now. Well, it’s a loaner, but they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers if they want it back. Unless they offer me a 64GB model in exchange…

And, yes, I have been reduced to the fatuous abuse of capitalization in its name: iPad, rather than a more proper Ipad. You know, you can’t even type Ipad on the device because the auto-correct feature will change it into iPad every time. Sigh. Auto-correct is the reason there are still exorcists in business these days.

Some of the features of the iPad are cool and definitely a “wow” factor. Some are remarkably opaque or clumsy. Ever try to copy files to an iPad from a PC? No simple click and drag there. You need to follow some Byzantine process through third-party transfer programs or through iTunes (which requires numerous settings changes on your PC and iPad) or via a cloud service. I can easily copy files to and from every other USB deviceI own except the iPad. It won’t accept files. It’s got to be the least useful USB device on the planet.

And how the hell do I turn off auto-correct? Doesn’t come with a manual: I need to download it online. I haven’t figured out how to store the PDF manual on the iPad, either, and from what I can tell, that’s impossible. That means it’s only available when I’m connected to the Net.

Even the manual doesn’t tell me how to save itself on my iPad for offline reading. I’ve had to put everything on Skydrive for the moment until I figure out how to save files. But Skydrive only works when you’re connected, so it’s useless without the Net.

iPad cartoonFor a 25-year veteran of PC use, this is awkward, having to unlearn so much. However, I did have an original Mac in the late 80s, and played heavily with an Apple ][ in the mid-80s, so I’m not entirely a virgin to Apple products.

Unlike the Mac, the iPad comes with a scarcity of apps or programs, and you need to spend several hours hunting for files on the App Store if you want to add some zing to the device. It has a handful of basic apps installed, and it’s usable out of the box for music playing, or video watching, and with some setup you can browse the Web and read/send email (assuming you can recall all your user names and passwords for your services and wireless access).

You will really need more to turn the iPad from a high tech toy into something seriously useful. First thing I recommend (aside from the free CBC Radio and Tunedin Radio apps…) is the trilogy of Apple iWorks programs: Pages, Numbers and Presentations. These are reasonably serious productivity tools that allow your iPad to do real work. Price is modest at $10 each. Compare that to the MS Office suite for Windows at $200 or more! (I’m told there is an MS Office suite for the iPad but I’ve never seen it in the app store, so I went with the Apple package instead.)

And you need a real keyboard because as easy as the virtual keyboard is, it’s nowhere near as efficient as a real one when you want to type something longer than your username.

No, the iPad is hard pressed to be a serious business/productivity tool out of the box, but it is a good in-between tool when your laptop or desktop isn’t available.

The iTunes store browser is so stupid it makes Windows 3.1 seem like the work of geniuses. It reverts to the same display every time, even when you just go back a screen: iPad and iPhone apps are displayed no matter how many times I specify iPad only, and any categories like rating or price are wiped out, and need to be reset with every tap of the back arrow. When you select an app to install, it closes the store and loads the app. You have to re-open the store to look for more apps. Sigh. What genius designed this mess?

And don’t get me started on the ugly store screen display… designed for children or illiterates. Why isn’t there a straight text listing? I’m okay with the simple tap & swipe interface, but there really needs to be more options for power users. This November marks my 35th year as a micro-computer owner-user-hacker (Thanks for asking…), so it’s hard for me to really appreciate dumbed-down devices.

ipad cartoonWhile many of the apps are brilliantly executed and beautifully presented, there’s no way to identify which free apps are stripped down versions of for-pay programs, full of ads, clumsy and butt ugly. I don’t mind paying for something but to me advertising something as “free” simply to trick people into buying other services or features is vile. Warn users up front if it’s feature-limited and we need to shell out money to make it work or to get the extras.

The information screens on many store items are woefully inadequate this way. It’s easy to get lured into installing something that’s just a hook to get you to buy more. You have to install an app, then test it, to discover its worth or usefulness. I’ve deleted almost as many free apps as I’ve installed so far. It really discourages me from paying for apps if the quality is to be measured by what the app store tells you.

An iPad is nonetheless a nifty little device, but compared to a full-blown PC it’s pretty limited. So why then, does a techie like me have one? Because I’m the tester, the guinea pig, for council use. And despite my qualms about the store, I’m giving it thumbs up because it’s the perfect device for councillors.

This year the council laptops turn five years old; ancient as far as technology goes. They’re scheduled for replacement. We’ve already upgraded the OS from Windows XP to 7. Some have required new parts. Their screens are small and old, compared to today’s machines.

The cost of new laptops is in the range of $1,200-$1,500 each. Each one requires a licensed operating system (Windows 7 soon to be 8), plus licensed versions of MS Office, all renewed annually. Installation and setup time for each machine means considerable staff time and effort. Plus councillors also need cases, a mouse, cords, cables and so on. Batteries wear out, mice break – things need to be replaced fairly often.

Life cycle cost of a laptop over a term of council, including licence renewals, is probably over $2,500 (not including taxes). It’s a lot more if staff tech support and maintenance time is added in. Town computers were originally on a three-year replacement cycle. That grew to four (to save taxpayers money), but right now the council laptops are running about 4.5 years and some are creaking along. So the iPads make sense from a financial point of view.

Given that most councillors use their laptops for simply checking email, browsing the Web and reading Word or PDF documents, it’s like giving Ferraris to old ladies to go shopping once a week. Why do councillors need PowerPoint when they only view presentations, not create them? Why Excel when no one (except me) will create spreadsheets? Why have USB ports, DVD drives and so on when most council members don’t need them?

This is why I use my own laptop rather than a town-owned one: it’s crammed full of my own programs, data and work.

Voila the iPad. It does email, browsing, displays documents without needing a single additional app. Add a case and keyboard, some basic apps, and the life cycle cost for a council term is still under $1,000, taxes included.

Not to mention the iPad is more portable, easy to carry to conventions and events, and is so simple even a municipal councillor can operate it. Tech support time is considerably lower.

Well, it may take a training session to explain some of the nuances… it isn’t THAT simple. The single button and tap-for-functions system is actually somewhat of a disadvantage when you’re coming from a feature-rich computer-and-mouse environment. But for the majority, it’s a great little device that solves our technology needs at a lower price than a PC laptop.

I figure I’ll need the 64GB version if I’m going to load it with all the apps I need…