Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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The Problem(s) With Free

March 27th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, you might have heard from your geekier friends that Google has decided to “power down” their Google Reader service, which, even after they hobbled it, was still a great service. This prompted me to write a lengthy post on the topic . . . just in time to find someone who said it better. I do still have some things that I wanted to add, however, so no concise blog post for you today.

When looking at web services offered by for-profit companies, here is a simple rule: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Companies like Facebook do not make money off their users, they make money off of advertisers, which means that those advertisers are the actual customers, not you. What Facebook is selling to those advertisers is your attention and your data (whether that be direct information like name and hobbies or indirect information like anonymized browsing and social networking trends).

Of course there is a moral component to all of this, nobody wants to be a product, after all, and it is easy to get worked up over having your information traded between third parties, but I’m going to ignore that. What this relationship means is that for companies like Google or Facebook, their loyalty is to their advertisers, not to you. And when it comes down to it, if you are not that good of a product (Google Reader was apparently difficult to monetize), if that product doesn’t sell, they will find a new one. And so Google Reader gets dropped in favor of Google+, whose users are apparently much shinier products. (Of course, there is doubtless more to the decision than this, Google appears to be attempting to build a large, integrated platform with G+ and Reader simply didn’t fit in, I do not begrudge them their business decisions).

On the other hand, when you are paying directly for a service, you are the customer (or at least a customer, there is nothing to keep that service from selling your information). The company has a vested interest in keeping you around, as you provide revenue. That doesn’t make all paid services better than their free equivalents, but a lot of them are.

Of course, this starts to get complicated when you are talking about minors or college students, who are often defined by their inability or unwillingness to pay for things that they could otherwise get for free, so regardless of icky ethical practices or instability, free services will continue to dominate the market, but I imagine that in the coming years we will see an increase sophisticated premium services, and equally sophisticated methods of paying for them.

Finally, much of this post was inspired by NewsBlur, a social RSS reader based on a subscription model (although they do offer a free, limited, account). When I got it working (it took a while due to them being slammed from the Reader announcement), it felt like home: a visually pleasing RSS reader with a solid social network built in. In some ways, I kind of wish that I had jumped the Reader ship earlier, but I was unaware of the alternatives. And although it may sound like they are paying me to say this, I am in fact paying them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stuff that I came across after I had finished writing this post (but that I don’t feel like editing into the post):

  • Tobias Buckell mentioned a post by Jeremiah Tolbert that talks about why having a website is important. The article goes over some of the stuff that you just read, and other things as well. Also, that rule that I stated above about being the product? Apparently I was remembering it, not creating it (thanks for bursting my bubble, internet). I guess that the idea has just become so deeply embedded in my worldview that I have a hard time remembering that at one point I didn’t know it (“The step after ubiquity is invisibility” and all that)
  • Forbes: Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours – “We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.”
  • NPR’s All Tech Considered: ‘Keep Google Reader Running’ Petition Hits 100K; Fans Audition Replacements – Of course, 100k isn’t that many people to Google, especially considering that Reader doesn’t really fit in with G+ (and probably competes with it).
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Behold . . . BioPunk

December 25th, 2008  |  Published in Uncategorized

Just read an interesting article about people doing genetics work in their homes.  Imagine tattoos that, instead of injecting ink, inject genes into skin so that it changes texture or color or becomes fluorescent.  Imagine custom bony outcroppings on elbows and knuckles.  Imagine super-ramped metabolism.  The future, if not here, is certainly on its way.  Sometimes I feel that as a science fiction writer, the struggle is to keep up with the pace of progress.

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Now I Need to Read His Books

May 18th, 2008  |  Published in News, Publishing, SciFi, Society, writing

CNN has an interesting interview with Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series of books.  I have personally wondered about a post-scarcity world for some time (I am a socialist, after all), and someone who associates himself with Ken MacLeod sounds like a good place to start.  In any case, go read it, its short and good, I will get back to writing.

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The Changing Face of Short Fiction

May 9th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Publishing, Stories, writing

So how long, really, is a short story? Common definitions define the top end of the length spectrum at anywhere between 7,500 to 20,000 words. Those numbers are for the most part, arbitrary. I mean if you define a short story as having a maximum of 10,000 words, then what is it about that 10,001th word that puts it over the edge? Silly, right? A much better definition is the functional definition famously espoused by Edgar Allen Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition”, which defines a short story as a story that is able to be read in one sitting. This may seem vague, as how much can be read in one sitting will vary from person to person, and indeed for one person from one situation to the next (reading at home vs. on a train, for example). On the other hand, it is much more reasonable than arbitrary word counts.

So what happens when we bring technology into the mix? Reading on a computer is a much different experience than reading a physical book, and the comparison is not necessarily negative. I won’t go into the details of how the two mediums differ, but I will say that electronic text lends itself to shorter reading times. On the computer, for example, there are a million other things going on which conspire to prevent the reader from sinking large amounts of time into something like reading, and this trend will only continue as we get more multi-purpose mobile devices that also act as e-book readers. Second, dedicated readers will also have a tendency towards shorter works, albeit to a lesser degree and for different reasons. The reason I say this is that they are more convenient than paper books (or at least this is where they are heading, currently the point is debatable), and so they lend themselves to the reading in the short periods of time between other things.

As a result, the average time a person spends reading without interruption (a sitting) will shorten. This means that stories broken into smaller and smaller chunks (flash fiction) will become the normal medium of fiction. This is not to say that long-form fiction will go away, because it won’t, just that more of it will be distributed serially. Personally, I think that this is a good thing. As a writer, it forces me to look at scenes as individual stories that contribute as a whole.

I would like to give one example of how this could work (beyond my own project, Uprising, of course). I have just finished reading Word War Z, by Max Brooks, which was fantastic, and for those of you who are not familiar with it, it consists of nothing but fictional interviews with survivors of a global zombie war. Part of the appeal of the book was that most of the interviews were short, and so it was easy to pick up and put down. On the other hand it was written in such a way that it was nearly impossible to put down (partially as a result of knowing that I could at just about any time, I’m sure).

If they were available, I would gladly read other stories that were written in this format, but there aren’t. Instead, its something that we’re going to have to do for ourselves. Which is a topic for another day (a day that will probably be sometime next week, in case you were wondering)

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More New Media

May 6th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, Reviews

I should also mention that Cory Doctorow released his new novel, Little Brother, recently.  I had the good fortune to read an early draft, and it was simply fantastic.  I won’t go into too much detail, but basically the plot revolves around a hacker kid who is treated poorly (read: realistically) by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Everything is based on current tech (like a nearer-future Doktor Sleepless), lending it a feel of future history.  If that isn’t enough, its available under a Creative Commons license, which means that you can download it in its entirety (the site also has instructions on how to do a bunch of the stuff in the book).  So go on and give it a read, you won’t regret it.

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Cognitive Enhancement

May 4th, 2008  |  Published in commentary

Yesterday, I wrote a brief post about an exercise that might increase certain types of intelligence.  When I looked at the related links that WordPress generated, I found a post from last year about the effect of exercise on the brain.  To sum it up, it helps.  This makes perfect sense, as human beings are essentially just very complex systems, and so anything that affects one part will inevitably affect the system as a whole.  As our bodies evolved to suit a lifestyle vastly different from ours, it is no surprise that we need to take extra steps to ensure that they function properly.  If we have any hope of ever becoming posthuman, we must first realize the full potential of being “merely” human.

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Exercise Your Brain

May 3rd, 2008  |  Published in Misc, News, Society

Although I am a huge proponent of reading as a way of improving brain functioning, I am also a geek, so I think that you might as well leverage whatever technology is out there. Last week, NewScientist had an article about a simple exercise that could make you smarter. Sounds pretty cool (and it can’t hurt), right? Well someone went ahead and implemented it in Flash. Who knows, maybe at sometime in the future our schools will have an entire class devoted to thinking skills (like this, or chess, or go). I know, expecting our schools to teach people how to think better may sound crazy, but its crazy enough that it just might work! So go ahead, play, and get smarter! Today, remember what happened two iterations ago, tomorrow, the world!!! (the extra exclamation points are to ensure that you know that I am indeed serious)

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Moore’s Law to Continue Until Further Notice

May 1st, 2008  |  Published in Misc, News, SciFi, Society

EETimes has reported that Hewlett Packard Senior Fellow R. Stanley Williams has invented a memristor (which is sort of like a transistor, but . . . not, more info in the article).  As a result, it appears that Moore’s Law will continue unabated into the foreseeable future.  Excellent news for those of us who want to have computers installed in our heads.

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