Category Archives: reading

Finding a new best Ebook reader

sony ereaderI am, by-and-large, not an early adopter of technology. By which I mean, I am not the sort of person to go after the “Latest And Greatest” just because. Sometimes I’ll be on the leading edge, but it will be for some idea I love, know exactly how I want to use, and intend to stay faithful to it for years. Which doesn’t always pan out the way I envisage. (MiniDisc is a good example – great tech, but the execution was bumbling and the industry moved on before Sony really sorted themselves out. Which some would argue they never really did.)

But it is why I never bought a Kindle years ago. Why I don’t now is a different reason. But I do have a Sony T1, which I find just barely useable. Mostly because it’s just a little bit too slow.

The ebook landscape has erupted in the last few years something amazing. It has also been part of the story of why so many bookstores have vanished, including the collapse of one of Australia’s biggest book chains. Buying on the Internet has helped in both ways. When you know exactly what book you, going to a website is much faster than finding a bookstore that might have it at best, or having one being able to order it in at worst. Buying ebooks this way, where as soon as the purchase is complete, you can download the file then and there, was a red-hot obvious next step.

Despite pressure from basically the rest of the industry, Amazon still will not put ePub support into their Kindle ebook readers. Amazon doesn’t seem to like the rest of the ebook industry existing because they are strongly rumoured to want to be the only place all books, physical or not, are bought and sold. You’ll never hear them say this, of course. But it goes quite a long way to explain the whole Kindle ecosystem they built. Their ebook reader is not a standalone device: it is tightly integrated with the Amazon ebook delivery mechanism. They spent a lot of time and money making it stupidly easy to purchase Kindle-format ebooks from them.

Would that someone else had copied that and figured out how to do it better. Apple could, as they also excel at creating an integrated ecosystem. But they didn’t want to become a publisher. Sony could have, too, but they have a bad habit of dithering around until they can successfully hit their own foot. MiniDisc again. However, it’s obvious they actually know how to do it, because they’ve been pretty successful at it with their Playstation Network.

As it happens, I genuinely prefer a physical book, often referred to as “dead tree” edition. But ebooks aren’t going away and there are just enough that I want to read that my T1 was recently exhumed from the shelf it was gathering dust on and recharged for adding new material to.

But is it the best choice? I often have my Surface Pro with me nowadays. And people have been reading on iPads and Android tablets for years. Should I go looking for a good ebook reader for my Surface Pro? The one in Calibre is not bad, but it is quirky. Or should I go looking for another e-ink device?


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A Neil Gaiman read-a-long

What do you think happens when a friend tweets about their apparantly missing copy of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and how they’d like to read it again? Especially when Neil Gaiman is flavour of the month on Twitter at the moment? Even more especially when her closest Twitter friends are unashamed Gaiman fans, too? 🙂

What happens is that we now have at least half-a-dozen close friends who are going to spend April reading Good Omens, and then May reading American Gods. And there has been at lesat one proposal for The Ocean At The End Of The Lane for June.

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Review: The Siren

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, but the truth is I have been doing more writing than reading in the last twelve months. But I did manage to finish one. It was The Siren by Tiffany Reisz. Most of my readers will either be aware of it, or have read it.

However, do not be fooled: as well as the obvious label “erotica”, this is a multi-layered story, rich with complex, flawed characters. It is dreadfully easy to find writing on the Internet that someone, somewhere will find titillating. It is rather less easy to find fiction that is actually written well. This work  is two levels above that. At least. And there may be spoilers ahead.

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The Price of Books

There is a bit of a kerfuffle at the moment around the way e-books are priced on retail websites. And this is more than readers complaining about prices that don’t make sense; it is about the US Department of Justice about to accuse several big publishers of pricing collusion.

Amazon and Apple and their business practices are at the centre of this. Both companies have the reputation and the ability to create a vision and then implement it. Both companies have the reputation, the ability and the desire to create closed “ecosystems”. Both companies sincerely want to be The Last Word and The Only Place for their technological niche. In Amazon’s case it is books, both on paper and electronic. For Apple, it is personal computing. Including electronic reading.


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The Apple That Steve Built.

The late Steve Jobs was undeniably passionate about what he wanted to achieve, and more importantly, passionate and driven about how. Many of those who have worked with him, both inside and outside of Apple, have expressed surprise at how fast Apple made design-oriented decisions. This was largely because of What Steve Says Goes.

As Isaacson has chronicled, Steve Jobs built Apple Computer up from two guys in a garage to a company with billions of dollars in turnover selling iconic products that are instantly recognisable. He had a vision of computing made easy, but not by asking people what they wanted. Instead he would create something new, different and compelling. The Apple that Apple became after it bought NeXT, and therefore, Steve Jobs, was focussed in a way it never really had been.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the product range. Jobs clearly believed that a multitude of products in a marketplace was not the way to go. When they introduced the iPod, there was just one model. Compare with Sony’s adventures with MiniDisc: the last major iteration (the 1Gb format) had at least five models. It was difficult to distinguish the various models apart.

Apple also observed that sales of their iPods drove sales of their Macintosh computers. This has also been observed with the iPhone and iPad: you need to develop on a Mac to write apps for the iPhone or iPad. But I’ve also seen people go down the Mac route for their computing “because It Just Works”. Hmm.

Apple is passionate about a good end-to-end computing experience. People like that. But just like I can respect what AC/DC did for the rock industry, I don’t have to like them.

I happen to dislike a number of Apple’s technology choices. Unsurprisingly, this was not Steve Job’s forte. Sometimes this is because I have investments in other technologies. The first one was that my music was in Ogg Vorbis long before AAC and the iPod appeared. Other times it is a difference in politics. Nowhere is this more prominent than in their curation of iPhone and iPad apps. But I grew up where once you owned the hardware, you could do what you like with it. This is why I run Linux on my PCs.

But it does make me wonder about the sacrifices necessary to honour an investment in passion. Steve Jobs firmly believed in that and made choices, unashamed at alienating people and their opinions. As a result, Apple believes that. I wonder how long that will remain true.

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Books that changed me.

Inspired by a tweet from a friend which inspired a blog post by another, I wondered what books I’ve read that have been life-changing. There are several ways to tackle that question!

One book I particularly remember was “The White Dragon” by Anne McCaffrey. It was the first time I’d read McCaffrey. My year 7 English teacher had one lesson a week where we could simply read. I discovered only later that the intention was to read the books we were assigned for English as a number of my classmates would avoid reading anything resembling a book if they could, but I was already a voracious reader. The White Dragon was recommended to my by a friend. I’d rather naïvely asked which was the best one, and he’d foolishly pointed to this one instead of answering the question I should have asked: which one should I start with? It was likely my first exposure to a new type of fantasy. One with realistic people dealing with very human problems tightly meshed with a wonderfully realized and unique fantasy world.

I’ve since bought and read nearly everything McCaffrey wrote. She was very good at characterisation and developing her characters throughout a story. There was realistic sounding dialogue. There were scenes to make you cry. There were amazing victories over incredible odds. There was, quite simply, daring and wonderful writing.

Another work of hers that I’ve also come to value was “Get Off The Unicorn“. This is, unusually, a collection of short stories written by McCaffrey. Many of these were from her earliest times as a writer and show a lot of daring ideas. She arguably became more conservative as she got older. There are stories here that later formed the basis for a series of movels, but there are also stories here that did not. Again, the amazing variety of characterisation is apparant, as is the tightly-meshed world each story is set in.

In one of his many essays, C. S. Lewis wrote about out how many would-be authors will create a fantastic background and then proceed to tell (for example) an ordinary love story in front of it. McCaffrey could do that, but she obviously preferred to make the fantastic background part of the story. The frantic search that Daffiyd Op Owen ran for an unregistered telepath could not have worked outside the fragile environment of newly emerged telepaths in a future earth. Lord Jaxom’s life was forever altered because he impressed a white dragon. Take away the fantastic and the story disintegrates. This is a skill I want to be good at.

Another book which changed me was actually a series of books: The Belgariad by David Eddings. This is a more traditional fantasy adventure at first blush, but with two significant tricks. The first is incredibly detailed characters. They have distinct speech patterns, unique approaches to solving problems and special ways of interacting with each other. They can also make mistakes, and do, sometimes with significant consequences. I have re-read these books many many times, enjoying the journey they take me on. I know the ending well. But they taught me that the journey is also important. Maybe moreso.

The other difference I only discovered much later, after Eddings had published a version of his original notes. Turns out he had a degree in English literature and he had deliberately indulged in a number of old tropes common to adventure stories to write his own, in particular The Hero’s Journey. It has been argued by some that Eddings’ down-to-earth and accessible characters is what revitalised the fantasy adventure genre. Which is probably what he intended to do.

I didn’t know it at the time, but The Hero’s Journey is at the core of a lot of stories and myths from time immemorial. You can’t get away from it because human beings have been telling each stories since forever.  The way a hero addresses a problem is the source of many an inspirational act. It is, in fact, the desire to tell these kinds of stories myself that have led me to seriously focus on being a writer.




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The infamous hero, Steve Jobs.

I wasn’t going to buy Steve Job’s biography. Sure, I was interested, but it had been hyped a lot and I tend to regard Apple a bit warily. I don’t own any Apple tech from during Job’s tenure. I don’t agree with the way Apple want to control the experience (I didn’t when Microsoft tried it, either). But the biography Steve Jobs is also, to a large extent, the history of Apple Computer and of the home computer industry. And that sort of thing is something I like reading about.

Of course, I’ve read biographys before. They are usually interesting life stories (and often interesting narratives in their own right) and can be instructive to hold up to your own life. And then a relative gave a copy to me for Christmas. This was as unexpected and exciting.

Those of you who know me on GoodReads will know I have begun reading it. Isaacson is deft at what he does. Steve is not unique, but he is highly individual. He always had a very strong internal drive and harnessed it to various purposes. Isaacson describes this as “very strong willed” and this is apparant in how he treats his parents and others around him. I know from other works that a lot of the visible pioneers of early home computers were also strong willed. So this is not surprising to see. Isaacson also shows, and this is more subtle, that Jobs may well have been fully aware of his fabled “Reality Distortion Field”. One interesting example of this was his strong belief that if he could do something, then someone else could, too.

We need more of that. I need more of that. One way or another, we all grow up looking up to other people. Some literature calls this hero-worship. As infants we look up to our parents or carers to fulfill that role. As we get older, we see hero figures in the world around us, and then in the media we consume. Professional athletes are often held up by the mass-media as hero figures, sometimes even by that exact name. There is a whole swathe of fiction devoted to heroism, much of it drawing on real history, such as viking raiders, or fabled samurai. Often heros are a lot closer to home and are rarely graced with that title. A teacher who encouraged a particular skill and the love for using it. An older relative who first taught us those skills. A friend who saw the potential and said something at the exact right time to make us realize it.

Hero figures are not perfect, though. Some people learn that at great cost when, say, a favourite golfer turns out to have a string of mistresses on the side. We should use that as a lesson in not judging our own failures too hard. When that lesson fails, a hero becomes a demon.

Steve Jobs is a hero to many people in many different ways, just as he is a demon to many others. I am sure Isaacson has waiting for me stories about both sides of this. He undoubtedly led his company to do extraordinary things, and his fabled “reality distortion field” was an important tool to do that. But in a lot of ways he was just human, too. I’m sure he would put his trousers on one leg at a time just like you and I.

Where are your heros? And consider the small ones, too. You may discover someone else looking up to you.


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