Printed Book v. Audio Book

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 8, 2014

I am reading and listening to the same book, Timescape by Gregory Benford. This 1980 science fiction novel is about the year 1998, and the Earth suffering from an environmental collapse. The reason it’s science fiction is because the people in 1998 find a way to send a message back to people in 1962 to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. I first read Timescape back in the early 1980s, just after it came out, and then listened to it in 2007. I’m reading it again this month for a book club, but as an experiment, I thought I’d listen to what I just read a week later. This has proved to be a fascinating experiment.

When I started routinely listening to audiobooks in 2002, I discovered just how bad a reader I was. Even though I was a lifelong bookworm, and thought myself a great reader, audiobooks revealed I wasn’t. My inner narrative was sketchy and wimpy compared to what I heard by professional narrators. This was true for a number of reasons, but mostly because I read too fast. I was skimming, rather than reading. There is more to reading than finding out what happens next. A great book will be rich in details, its scenes dramatic, and its characters full of distinctive voices. Speed reading tends to gloss over the details, flattens the drama and eliminates the voices.

A dozen year later, I now read much slower. I work very hard not to skim. I keep an eye out for the clues the author gives to imagine the dramatic interaction of the characters, and their personal voice. I’ve come a long way, but not far enough. I’m rereading Timescape because I’m leading a book discussion group, and I’m summarizing each chapter.  I concentrate harder on the details of the prose and take notes.

Then a week later, I decided to listen again to the same story. As I progress over each chapter, I remember reading the words. I’m don’t think I skimmed much at all, but it’s still very obvious that I’m not getting the dramatic intent of the story. The book is narrated by Simon Prebble, and he brings so much more nuance to the story. Prebble is not making stuff up, the clues to how the characters should sound are in the narrative, I just don’t imagine the drama in my head when reading compared to what I hear in the audiobook.

Strangely, listening to an audiobook is like using a magnifying glass to examine the details of writing. Benford has created characters with distinctive voices and psychologies. He even gives his sister-in-law, Hilary Foister, credit for helping him with the British portion of the story. For instance, I’m always jarred when British people drop the definite article, like when they say, “go to hospital” or “go to university.” I don’t know why we want the definite when declaring generic places, but that’s how it is. When reading that kind of thing in Timescape I didn’t notice it, but I did when listening.

When Renfrew meets Patterson for the first time he experiences a number emotions.  Renfrew grew up a working class kid that’s made it to Cambridge, to become a physicist,  and meets the upper class Peterson, a politico who’s going to evaluate his budget for a highly theoretical experiment in times when many are starving. Renfrew is very tense, and class conscious.

     “Good morning, Dr. Renfrew,” The smooth voice was just what he had expected.

     “Good morning, Mr. Peterson,” he murmured, holding out a large square hand. “Please to meet you.” Damn, why had he said that? It might have been his father’s voice: “I’m reet please to meet ya, lad.” He was getting paranoid. There was nothing in Peterson’s face to indicate anything but seriousness about the job.”

Do you feel the paranoia from reading it? I did a little, but I felt it more when listening. Prebble even does the father’s voice with the accent and different tone, a tiny flashback. The two men sound different in the narration, sounding like what Benford tells us they sound.

This rather plain passage presents all the essential details, but when I listened to Prebble read it, I got the feeling we were decoding more of Benford’s intent. I even picture how Benford imagined the scene and wrote it. Charles Dickens was famous for acting out his characters and scenes as he wrote them. I think most good writers, even if they aren’t hammy would-be actors, at least mentally picture their scenes in a dramatic way, and hear the voices of their characters. If you read very fast all characters sound the same – your inner voice.

When readers decode fiction they can reconstruct the scene in an infinite number of ways.  I tend to think most of us readers don’t do a lot of decoding, but merely grab the basic information to move the story forward and rush on to the next fact. I have met people who claimed to see novels acted out in their heads, but I don’t.

However, when I listen to an audio book read by a great narrator, I do. It’s like a book is a freeze-dried drama and the narrator is the water that reconstitutes the story. I think this is true because the audiobook goes at a very slow pace, the pace of speech. That gives my mind time to feel the words which triggers images. Finally, the professional reader colors the narration with a rich reading voice that adds addition textures.

Benford is not a great literary writer, but Timescape is far more literary than most science fiction novels. Timescape won several awards and has been added to many best book lists. I think it succeeded because it stand outs among other science fiction novels as better written and more character driven. It also stands out because of its serious extrapolation and speculation – it’s not your typical sci-fi escapism. And I feel listening to Timescape magnifies its higher qualities beyond what I was able to perceive by just reading the book with my inner voice – which is quite plain.

As a person who’d love to write fiction, I hear in Benford’s story what I’m missing in my own writing. The details I notice under the magnification of audio narration reveal qualities in writing I aspire to acquire. I think listening to audio books can be a superior way of decoding fiction. I wonder how blind people running their fingers across the Braille page compare what they take in by touch to what they hear with their finally tuned ears. Thousands of years ago when humanity transitioned from an oral culture to a written culture, I wonder if they missed what went away when they started reading silently.

As a lifelong book worm I’ve been conditioned to seeing words, but now I’m learning what it means to hear them.

JWH

AirPlay – The Best Way To Listen To An Audio Book

I’ve been an Audible.com user since 2002 and over the last dozen years I’ve learned a lot about listening to audio books.  First off, it actually takes practice to learn how to listen to an audio book well.  Don’t let first impressions about audio books throw you off.   Some people get frustrated because they keep missing stuff and jumping back isn’t as easy as rereading a paragraph.  Luckily good players have a 30 second jump back button.  And don’t worry, the more you listen, the more you learn how to keep you mind focused on the story, even when you’re doing something else.

AirplayIcon

Most people think listening to books is something you do on car trips, and that’s how I got hooked, but there are many times in your day when listening to a book is an added pleasure.  For example, I often eat alone.  So the time I spend cooking, eating and doing the dishes is enhanced by listening to a book.  Listening while doing something is great if you’re a bookworm that wants to finish a lot of books, but it’s not the best way to actually listen to a book.  Even when you’re doing something mindless and think you can devote yourself to a book you can’t completely.

I’ve recently discovered my current best way to listen to a book because I bought a new stereo receiver with AirPlay and my friend Charisse recommended a rather intellectually deep book, Possession by A. S. Byatt.  AirPlay is Apple Computer’s technology, also licensed to third party developers, that allows you to beam content to AirPlay enabled devices.  I use an iPod touch to listen to books, and when I got my new Denon receiver my iPod started showing a little AirPlay symbol automatically.  If I tap this new symbol I’m given the choice of playing the book through the iPod or from the Denon.  If I select the Denon the receiver automatically turns itself on, even when I’m in another room, and starts playing my audio book.

My stereo system is hooked up to large floor standing speakers, so I can play the book loud, and I do.  This has transformed how I listen to my audio books.  Like discovering music sounds best when played loud, so does audio books.  Hearing the narrator speak in a volume similar to a person in the room talking firmly and expressively loud changes how I perceive the book.  It feels like I’m at a play with my eyes closed.  Writing just jumps out when listened to at this volume, especially if I just sit and pay full attention.  Combining a good narrator with a good writer at this volume absolutely showcases literary skills.  Writing, word by word, and line by line, is just so vivid.

When Charisse came over to hear selections from two of her favorite novels, Possession and Great Expectations, she was so impressed that she asked me to help her buy a stereo system like mine.  And that’s the trouble with this new method.  You need a big stereo system.  Really good headphones do work, but there’s something about the sound filling the room  that makes it feel like people are acting out the book.

Sadly, big stereo systems aren’t common anymore, but many people do have surround sound systems for the flat screen TVs.  Check and see if you have AirPlay enabled on your system, or another method to plug in a smart phone or portable player.  Some systems have an input jack that plugs into your headphone jack.  Give it a try.

I don’t always expect to listen to books this way, because it’s not convenient, but more and more, I’m finding time to sit in my easy chair and devote myself to listening to my book played loud.  Over the years I’ve experimented with various ways to take in audio books.  The best way to study a book for research or school is to listen and read at the same time, but to get the fullest dramatic impact of a well written piece of fiction, listening at loud levels really makes the work stand out.  Also, it was interesting to listen with Charisse, like two people watching a TV show together.  It worked.  Most people think of reading as a solitary pursuit, but AirPlay could encourage group listening to books.  I know it sounds strange, but it works.  My wife Susan and I always enjoyed listening to books in a car, which by the way, is another good way to listen to a book played loud, but now that I’m learning to focus so intently, I’m not sure I should be driving and listening.

Audio books taught me I was a poor reader and I should leave the reading to experts.  I also learned that going slowly through a book, at conversational level speed, was more respectful to the writing than my normal eye-ball reading habit of anxiously speed reading through the pages to find out what happens next.  Now I know that the slow pace of audio books combined with good speakers played loud and full attention makes a book come alive in a unique way.

JWH – 5/28/14

The Strange Pricing of Digital Goods

I buy a lot of digital goods and services but I’ve noticed that there is no consistency in pricing.  For example I subscribe to Rdio.com and pay $4.99 a month for access to millions of songs and albums.  Yet, The New York Times wants $15-$35 a month for access to just one newspaper.  $60 a year for 15,000,000 songs versus $180 for 365 issues of one newspaper – can you spot the obvious bargain?

Yet for $7.99 a month, or $96 a year I get access to 75,000 movies and TV shows at Netflix.  $7.99 a month is also the price Hulu Plus charges for thousands of shows too.  So why does one newspaper cost $15 a month, especially since it was free for years.  I love reading The New York Times, but I can’t make myself pay $15 a month for it when I get so much music for $4.99 a month, and so many movies and TV shows for $7.99 a month.  If I was getting access to several great papers for $7.99 a month I’d consider it a fair deal.  But for one title, I think it should be much less.

This makes The New York Times appear to be very expensive.  However, The Wall Street Journal is $3.99 a week, or $207.48 a year. Strangely, The Economist, a weekly is $126.99 a year for print and digital, or $126.99 for just digital. Go figure.

I also get digital audio books from Audible.com.  I pay $229.50 for a 24 pack, which is $9.56 per book, but they often have sales for $7.95 and $4.95 a book.  I can get two books from Audible for what I’d pay for 30 daily papers, but I actually spend way more time listening to books than I’d spend reading the paper online. 

I subscribe to several digital magazines through the Kindle store.  Right now I’m getting a month of The New Yorker for $2.99, but that’s suppose to go up to $5.99 soon.  (What is it about stuff from New York being more expensive?)  Most of the magazines I get from Amazon are $1.99 a month, way under the cost for a printed copy at the newsstand.  The Rolling Stone is $2.99 and I usually get two issues in a month.  So for $15 a month, the price of The New York Times, I get 11 magazines (4 New Yorkers, 2 Rolling Stones, Discover, Maximum PC, National Geographic, Home Theater and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  That’s a lot of reading for $15 a month, and a lot of variety.

However, I also subscribe to Zite, an app on my iPad where I do the most of my news reading, and that’s free.  I get free articles from those magazines above and who knows how many more, all for free.  In fact, I spend so much time reading Zite, because it’s customized to my interests, that I’m thinking of cancelling my magazine subscriptions.  But that’s another issue.  Like when I subscribed to paper copies of magazines I mostly let them go unread.

Even if I paid $15 a month for The New York Times I’m not sure how many articles I would read above the 10 articles a month they offer now for free.  I don’t expect everything to be free on the internet, but sadly, paid content has to compete with free.  Zite, which is free, is actually worth $15 a month, because I get access to zillions of magazine articles, newspaper stories, and web blogs.

I’m also a subscriber to Safari Books Online, a subscription library to technical books.  I pay $9.99 a month and get to have 5 books a month “checked out” to read.  I can keep them longer, but I have to keep them at least one month.  So for $120 a year I get to read as many as 60 books, which means the price could be as low as $2 a book.  That’s a bargain when most computer books are $40-50.

And I’m a member of Amazon Prime.  For $79 a year I get unlimited 2-day shipping, access to 12 ebooks (1 a month from their library of 100,000 titles) and unlimited access to thousands of movies and TV shows.  This is another tremendous bargain.  I also buy ebooks for my Kindle and iPad from Amazon.  Costs run from free to $9.99.  On very rare occasions I’ll pay more, but it hurts.  Digital books just seem less valuable than physical books.  I don’t feel like I collect digital books like I do with hardcovers.  I don’t even feel I own ebooks.

Next Issue Media is now offering a library of digital magazines Netflix style for $9.99-$14.99 a month, but only one of the magazines I currently subscribe to, The New Yorker, is part of the deal.  If all of my regular magazines and The New York Times were part of the deal, then I’d go for it.  However, Zite with it’s intelligent reading system would still dominate my reading.  Flipping through magazines is just too time consuming.  What I want is a Zite Plus, a service that provides access to all the free and paid content I like to read.

Can you spot the trend in all of this?

I think most people on the net are willing to pay for digital goods if they get a bargain, especially if it’s part of a library of goods like Netflix, Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, Hulu Plus, Safari Online, Amazon Prime, etc.

And there is another issue about buying digital goods.  Some companies charge extra if you use their content on a smartphone.  Rdio and Spotify are $4.99 a month for listening on your computer but $9.99 a month to also listen on your smartphone.  The New York Times is $15/month for reading online and smartphone, $20 for online and tablet, and $35 for online, smartphone and tablet.  Why the heck is that?  It’s the same damn words.  Why would they care where you read their paper.

Netflix charges $7.99 a month and you can watch it on a whole array of possible devices.

JWH – 4/24/12

Classic Science Fiction Books on Audio, Kindle and Nook

First off, look at the PDF report I made:  Classics of Science Fiction on Audio, Kindle, and Nook.  [Excel version.] What I did was take the ranked list from the Classics of Science Fiction web site and make a spreadsheet adding columns for Audio, Kindle, Nook and In Print.  By “In Print” I meant there was a paper copy for sale.  I then looked for the books on Amazon, B&N and Audible.com web sites, marking their columns Yes or No.

The original Classics of Science Fiction list was pulled from a database of SF titles that had been recommended from 28 different sources.  The final list were all books that had been on at least 7 of the recommended lists.  What I wanted to know is how well these books are represented in ebook and audiobook editions.

Of the 193 titles, 143 can still be bought as old fashion books.  81 can be listened to as audio books, 69 read on the Kindle and 64 on the Nook.  So a little less than half are available as audio books, and about a third as ebooks.  That doesn’t sound too bad.

However, if you use just a Kindle for reading, two thirds are not available, so that does feel bad.  Or if you’re an audiobook fanatic, a little more than half are unavailable.

35 books were not available from any source and 35 books were available from all four sources.  I made the all sources blue, and the no sources red.  Some of the red books might be available from other sources like print on demand, for ebook readers other than Kindle or Nook, or even on the web as public domain. 

Many of the red titles were collections, so I don’t worry about them going out of print.  Often a writer’s short stories get recollected under new titles.  If I saw a new collection that appears to have most of the original stories I counted the old title as being in print.

What’s troublesome is the number of novels that are no longer available.  Should John Brunner’s Stand On Zanibar really be considered a classic if no one is selling it?  Some of these novels do come back into print every decade or so, so if this list was made again in a year it would all be different.  Yet, I would think with the advent of ebooks all books will become “in print” digitally.

Some of the short story collections really should be in print today because they are major collections that deserve to maintain their identity, such as:

  • Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas
  • Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Someday I might reevaluate this list and remove the books that people have obviously lost interest in, and remove most of the short story collections, and titles that really shouldn’t be listed as science fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm.  They are on here because fans polls or critics included them, but I think they shouldn’t be.

I’m also surprised by how many famous SF books are not available on the Kindle or Nook.  Do some authors not like ebooks and refuse to let their work appear in digital editions, or are there legal problems, or do some publishers think ebooks compete too well with print editions?

What’s fascinating is some books are only available in audiobook editions, like The Lensman series from E. E. “Doc” Smith.

JWH – 9/4/10

Revised 9/5/10:  I replaced the reference to Frank Herbert’s Under Pressure to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar because Chistopher Carey below pointed out that Under Pressure is also known as The Dragon in the Sea.  Thanks for that information.  I also found a little know hardback version of The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.  I also added an Excel version because of a reader request.

I also changed the totals in various places.  I don’t know if it’s going to be practical to update the essay every time I update the spreadsheet/pdf report.

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella from 1994, that was produced as an audiobook two years ago by Audible Frontiers.  I read the story when it came out and remembered being impressed, but I just couldn’t remember the details, so I listened to audiobook version, beautifully  narrated  by Jonathan Davis, and now it’s etched into my brain again.  I wonder how much I’ll remember about the story in 16 years?  I hate that my mind is a sieve.  And maybe, since I’m writing a review here, that will further reinforce my memory.

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is available to read online at Subterranean Press, and reprinted in these anthologies.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a fantasy allegory in science fiction drag about alien anthropologists finding seven artifacts at Olduvai Gorge that tell the story of extinct mankind.  Mankind had conquered the galaxy and the aliens both admired and hated us.  They wanted to know what drove humans to destroy everything we touched.  You can think of the recent film Avatar as an eighth story about homo sapiens’s impact on the galaxy.

I really hated the way Avatar painted humanity so thoroughly brutal and selfishly uncaring.  When I tell friends about this, they tell me that’s how they see humans too.  It’s certainly the way Mike Resnick paints us in “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” but he does it with more finesse than James Cameron.

The audio production of “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” runs two hours and twenty minutes and is seven short stories encased in a fictional frame.  Resnick infuses his firsthand knowledge of Africa into this tale, and uses Olduvai Gorge as the touchstone setting for the seven visions and the frame.  It works fantastically well on audio, and reminds me of a shorter version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I’ve always considered Bradbury the anti-science fiction science fiction writer because he fears the future, and sees so much horror in the nature of man.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” could be a homage to Bradbury.  I always like Mike Resnick’s prose because he’s better than most science fiction writers at blending emotion into his stories.  One of my all-time favorite short stories is his “Travels with My Cats.” [Also on audio at Escape Pod.]

I review a lot of science fiction, but the story review that gets the most hits is “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  My guess is the story is often taught in school, and if it wasn’t so long, I’d suggest teachers should replace “The Veldt” with “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.”  Both are cautionary tales about the evil side of humanity, a perfect Rorschach test for young minds to contemplate our reality.  How do you judge humanity after reading “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge?”  Are we inherently flawed?  Are we evil?  Not only do we threaten all other life forms, we lean towards the self-destructive.  And if we’re not evil, are we just stupid, aggressive and unrelentingly unaware?

Robert A. Heinlein used to brag that mankind is the most dangerous animal around and any intelligent life on other planets should get out of our way.  There’s a lot of extinct species on this planet that would agree with him.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” agrees with this sentiment, but who is Mike Resnick warning?  I don’t think his message is to aliens from outer space.  Are we merely meant to accept this story at face value?  Or does Resnick expect us to smarten up?

JWH – 2/2/10

My Life on a Hard Drive

I wanted to call this essay, “My Life on a Terabyte Drive” because it sounded cooler and more specific, but then I’m thinking about buying a netbook and they only come with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space, something less glamorous to say in a title.  I can’t even fit my music collection on that, so it wouldn’t be true either.  If you read to the end of this essay, you’ll see I could have called it, “My Memory Book,” but that title wouldn’t mean anything to you until I explained it all. 

Either at work, or with friends, I’ve had to help many people move their personal data from one computer to another.  When I started this kind of support years ago, all I needed was one floppy.  The last time I moved my stuff to a new machine, I bought a 750gb USB drive.  No, I didn’t need to fill it up, at least not then.  My Mozy.com account says I have 193.3gb backed up with them, but that’s only my life from one of three home computers, and I’ve yet to complete the epic task of scanning all my family photos.

When I contemplate putting my life on a hard disk many fanciful ideas come to mind.  I like to compare this goal to mind uploading, a science fictional concept that deals with transferring a person’s personality to a computer.  I first wrote about this idea in “My Life in 75 Megabytes,” which lets you know how long I’ve been thinking about this concept.  Back then my own expanding universe was much smaller, and could fit on a zip disk.

I find I have seven discrete concepts I’d like to explore in this essay:

  1. What goes into a digitized life?
  2. How is a digital life organized?
  3. How do we synced ourselves across many machines?
  4. What role does the media player play?
  5. How to we span living across local and network drives?
  6. What do we need to protect our digital memory?
  7. And do our files define our personality?

Thinking about buying a netbook that will be my carry-around auxiliary mind, a Mini-Me, so to say, I’d like to think about it’s full theoretical potential.  Let’s just play with the idea of what we’d like to have on a computer if one day we found ourselves orphaned from home with only the clothes on our back and a computer in our hand.

What Goes Into a Digitized Life?

Photographs have been the primary artifact that people want to protect and preserve.  Photographs are what people cry over the most when their CPU bytes the big one.  Next up is music files, either ripped, stolen or DRMed.  Few people stuff their machines with essays and fiction like me, but many folks like to maintain a wordy autobiography in the form of an email archive.  A few $-minded souls, horde tax records like misers.  And I’m starting to see hard drives become the new shoebox for home videos.  I myself, have hundreds of audio books that I’ve tediously ripped from cassette tapes and CDs that I’d hate to lose.  My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes.  I’ve met a few people who maintain databases of things they love to collect.  When it comes down to it, there’s an almost endless variety of things people junk up their hard drives with and want to save forever.

All this digital junk can be broken down into two extremely distinct types:  Unique, owner created data, that can’t be found anywhere else, and copies of stuff other people created, either received free, stolen or bought.  It’s far more painful to have a laptop stolen with five years of digital snapshots than one with hundreds of dollars worth of songs bought from iTunes.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s not worry about the actual size of the hard drive on your buddy computer, but instead imagine this device will contain everything you want to save that can be digitized and if found in 30 years by your grandchildren, or 300 years by a scholar of the 21st century history, would make a statement about who you are.  Think about this super-netbook as your library of personally created data, plus copies of your favorite songs, books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, poems, short stories, novels, etc.  Just think of it as the memory you wished your neurons could records.

The File Structure of Our Lives

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into someone else’s computer and tried to extract what they desperately want to save, but it’s a fascinating task.  Microsoft, Apple and Linus all make provisions for storing user documents in a specified place, but users do their damnedest to squirrel important files all over their drives.  And even when they stick to the Home directory concept, everyone creates their own folder structure and naming system.  In recent years the idea of standard music and photo folders have emerged, which is great, but I think we need to convene a panel of Nobel prize winning eggheads to develop a worldwide standard, to be used across all OS systems, so future archeologists poking through our private digital junkyards can easily find our treasured entombed memories, and make sense of them.

We need to organize our auxiliary brains and keep them tidy for ourselves too, because as we toss more stuff into our net noggins, finding what we want becomes harder and annoying.  I love the fact that most applications in Windows now open My Documents as default when you mouse click Open File.  It drives me nuts that people want to override this and put their crap all over the desktop or in folders they created off of the root drive. 

I’m also glad Microsoft simplified “My Documents,” “My Music,” and “My Pictures” into Documents, Music and Pictures.  But now we need to expand on that to include Videos, Movies, Books and other categories.  This is where things get tricky, where arguments start, and OS turf wars begin.  Under “Jim” on my Vista machine I have:

  • Desktop
  • Downloads
  • Links
  • Pictures
  • Searches
  • Documents – Shortcut
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • Favorites
  • Music
  • Saved Games
  • Videos

This is how Microsoft divides my life, and they’ve made some mysterious choices to me.  I wish I had a Mac so I could see how Steve Jobs wants the same job accomplished.  Ubuntu just gives me a home folder, leaving me free to make my own decisions from there   Since our computer will define our personality and I said we could save anything digital document that defines us, this means the home folder will become a library of digital files.  I’m not sure if the structure set out by Microsoft is a workable Dewey Decimal system for this task though.

What folder do I file my digital audio books?  Where do I put my ebooks or .pdf files for magazines and articles?  And should I save Gattaca, my favorite science fiction movie under Videos, the same place where I would store my home made clips?  And if I collected favorite YouTube videos, should they also be filed with my personal videos?

I think we need to rethink the \Home\ folder concept.  \Jim\ should be just for documents I created, and another folder called \Library\ should be used for all files I collect that were created by other people.  And the two might even have sub-folders with the same titles, like \Videos\,  \Photos\ and \Music\.  (That’s assuming I become more creative than I am now.)  Thus the new \Jim\ might contain these sub-folders:

  • Audioclips
  • Banking
  • Blogs
  • Bookmarks
  • Data
  • Diary
  • Emails
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • HTML
  • Lists
  • Medical
  • Numbers
  • Photos
  • Timeline
  • Video

This isn’t perfect yet, but I hope you see where I’m going.  Under \Library\ I might have these sub-folders:

  • Art
  • Audiobooks
  • Books
  • Lectures
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Podcasts
  • Television
  • Video

In my personal folder, I have Photos, for those I take, but Photographs under Library, for pictures I buy.  Art would be for digitized artwork I like.  My desktop gallery program could be set to pull from Art, Photos and Photographs.

How to Keep our Digital Life Synced?

I have two desktop machines and laptop at home, and various iPod and MP3 players, including a iPod touch, and I’m planning to buy a netbook.  Plus I have several computers at work with years of programming code I created that I never want to loose.  At work I have USB drive I brought from home that has a backup of all my home files, but in particularly, my music library so I can play songs at work.  At times I also bring USB drives home, so my work is backed up.

The absolute ideal file storage solution would a 100% reliable gigabit network to a federally protected online databank with all my computers accessing one file system library that was perfectly safe until the Sun goes nova.  Plus, my data would be preserved for ever and ever, even after I died, for historical researchers.  I’m watching The Tudors – don’t you wish the producers of the show had access to Henry’s and Anne’s home directories?

Unfortunately, we don’t have such an ideal solution.  The trend is toward owning multiple computers, and by computer I also mean cell phone, iPod, and even video game units, anything that processes and stores digital data you create.   And we’re already seeing syncing solutions.  You can backup cell phone directories to your home computer, or if you have an iPhone, you can get your email, contacts and calendar from an Exchange server at work, thus syncing your phone numbers in one database.

In fact, the iPhone is a marvelous device, in that it can sync songs, photos, audiobooks, television shows, movies and other files from your mothership desktop to your lifeboat phone.  Apple doesn’t seem to like the concepts of netbooks, hoping you will use an iPhone/touch instead.  However, I find their amazing little screen too small to be my carry-around computer companion.

The Role of the Media Player

iTunes is also a fascinating program and concept.  It’s a program that attempts to manage the \Library\ portion of your file system, and a media player for playing songs, television shows, movies and audiobooks from your library.  With a bit of tweaking from Apple, it theoretically could handle my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and PDF documents too, if we wanted one file librarian to manage all my computer files, including the personally created \Jim\ files too.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Right now we generally have one program that creates each kind of content, such as a word processer for writing, a spreadsheet for playing with numbers, a database for handling data in tables, a publishing program for making magazine content, web editors for creating web pages, audio programs for recording voice, and so on.  But on the other hand, there are two classes of programs emerging that show us the results of what these other programs produce.  The first general class of file viewers is the web browser for looking at data files on the net, and the second program is the media librarian for looking at files on your computer.

I’m not sure if media librarians are a good idea or not.  They are designed to make life easier for the user and isolate the user from knowing about the file system.  The entire Macintosh philosophy seems to follow this belief too, that things are easier if you keep the user from needing to know too much about the file system.  I’m not sure that’s a good educational goal.  Both the web browser and media librarian work to replace the operating system.  An emerging class of Linux netbooks work to create an easy-to-use visual menu that sits on top of the OS and hides things from the user too.

The trouble is, if users work directly with the file system and double clicks on one, whether word processor document, or mp3 music file, those files will be launched into an editor program, rather than a player program, assuming the user created the files.  Media librarians like iTunes, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, Audible Manager are great for organizing and playing certain kinds of files, producing playlists, sharing media with other users, etc.  The trouble is to select one universal media library program that does everything perfectly.

When I download an audiobook from Audible.com, it goes into my iTunes and Audible Manager, and I can have it also go into my Windows Media Player.  Sometimes the download gets messed up and the audiobook doesn’t get filed in one of the players.  So I have to find the file and manually add it to the library.  iTunes files all MP3 files under Music, so songs and ripped audio books get mixed together.  That annoys me.

Plus iTunes only wants to work with iPods, so it doesn’t help me when I use my Zune.  But then my Zune Media player won’t have anything to do with my iPods.  And all my media librarians fight to own my MP3 collection of 18,000+ songs.  It’s a huge pain.  I also have multiple programs willing to play my videos too, but none are universal, thus I have to have specialty programs like Amazon Unbox to view videos bought from Amazon.

Right now you can set Windows to launch any program you choose for a particular file extension.  Thus if I have Rhapsody set for .mp3, it will launch when I click on a song or an audiobook or a podcast, all of which share the .mp3 extension.  I wish Windows would allow a folder override to this system, so for \Audiobooks\ I could set Audible Manager as a my player, and for \Music\ I could set Windows Media Player, and for \Podcasts\ I could set iTunes.

Now that we’re slowly moving away from DRM enslaved files, we will be less reliant on media librarian programs like iTunes.  Also, why does your favorite program to play songs also have to be your program to load songs onto a MP3 player?  And why can’t I have one librarian for all my devices, including iPods, Creative MP3 players, Zune, phone and netbooks?  Every portable device has a limited amount of storage space, so wouldn’t it be great to have a librarian on my largest computer that could talk to all my lesser computers and help me manage a subset of files I want to maintain on each?

I would love a librarian where I could rate my content 1-10, whether songs, movies or word documents, and then when I plug in a portable device, the librarian would show me how much that device can handle by telling me, “This device can hold all content rated 8 and above, would you like me to load it?”  Or I could set it to always load personally created data first, then songs as a second priority, and only sync television marked unseen, and to manually sync movies.

Even still, I’m not sure I like one program to do everything for me.  I like choice.  I like the Unix philosophy of having a tool for each job.  I think I’d prefer to pick each app that played each kind of file.  That way I could have the perfect ebook reader for me that might be different from my perfect music player.   Hell, I might like one kind of MP3 player for playing albums, another for playing playlists, another for random playing of songs, and even another program where I play and manage my all-time favorite 1,001 tunes.  And all of these would work from the same \Music\ folder structure.  I’d also like a program that would generate reports on the \Music\ folder by listing all albums, artists and tracks, and keep statistics on each.  I have no idea how many albums I own, even though they are all on a computer.

Hard Disk Driving versus Network Driving

As the Internet get better, meaning faster and with more features, space on our local hard drives will be needed less, until we only need to store personally created data.  If Rhapsody’s library had every song my personal music library did, I’d never mess with a \Music\ folder again.  If the network was fast and always dependable, I wouldn’t even worry about putting songs, television and movies on my devices because I’d just stream them from Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora, Zune, Netflix and Amazon.  A netbook with a 160gb hard drive would be fine and dandy as my auxiliary brain until I took too many photos or videos.  And if I could store unlimited photos and videos reliably online, I’d again be free of hard drive space limitations.

If the the broadband and the network were that great I wouldn’t even need a \Library\ file system at all.  However, any experience with flaky network connections will make you horde your favorite content locally.

There’s a reason why they call these cute little computers netbooks.  They are gadgets designed to depend on the Internet for their content.  I’ve never wanted a smartphone because I’ve never wanted to pay a broadband cell phone bill, but I’d be much more likely to want broadband service with a netbook.  And all the cell phone providers are quickly ramping up to sell netbooks with two-year broadband contracts. 

Laptops were supposed to be on-the-go computing, but they have been too big, too expensive and don’t last long enough on a charge, to be the always on-the-go computers.  I just don’t want to carry an expensive laptop everywhere, afraid I might break it, lose it, or have it stolen, but I might carry a $350 machine everywhere I went, especially if it’s charge would last all day like a cell phone, and I could get access to the net.

I’ve set up a half-dozen netbooks so far, all for women who want these purse size computers.  I’ve had several grown women in my office all squealing like girls over purple and pinkness.  They don’t even understand the potential of netbooks, all they see is pretty and purse-able.  They even buy netbooks with their own money for work use.  I’ve talked to other women that bought them for home use at Walmart or from the Home Shopping Channel, and they tell me their kids are buying them too.  Netbooks are hot.  $250-$400 seems to be the right price for portable computing.

I’m waiting for 8 hours of battery life, which many models have now, and better video processing, which is coming this fall.  I’d also like faster processing and I’m torn on deciding between a 10” or 12” screen, and what resolution it should have.  I’ve set up a Dell Mini 10 with 1366×768 resolution that’s super sharp but teeny tiny  But the Dell’s was properly proportioned at the resolution, something not true of all netbook screens I’ve seen.  I hate squashed or stretched fonts!  

Netbooks are getting very close to showing 1080p video, so they will make great on-the-road theaters that can replace portable DVD players and iPods, plus they make great Skype video phones.  Combined with broadband and Bluetooth headsets, they can be cell phones too.  The implications for this auxiliary brain as a communications tool is immense.

Backing Up is Hard To Do

As we put more of our life on our netbooks, or should we steal a trademark, our Lifebooks, it will be vital to back them up.  If netbooks are synced with desktop computers, that’s one level of backup.  Asus even sells their netbooks with 10gb of online storage.  And there is always services like Mozy.com that backup files to Internet servers.  But the main thing to remember, these devices will become our heads we can lose, and we’ll hate the day we experience a digital lobotomy.  I’ve always said the Internet is our real sixth sense, and netbooks will only reinforce this belief.  Once we all got addicted to electrical devices like computers and televisions, we’d get pissed when electricity went off.  After I became dependent on the net, I actually get jumpy and depressed when the net goes down.  If we become addicted to our little buddy computers we carry everywhere, losing one will be painful indeed.  Like losing part of ourselves.  Being able to quickly replicate our digital life onto a replacement netbook will be extremely important.

Do Our Files Reflect Our Personality?

If a team of psychologists with AI tools, found my future netbook with all my writing and all my favorite photos, art, books, movies, television shows, songs, on it, could they analyze the content and produce a description of my personality?  If netbooks had been around for hundreds of years, and we could study the content of our ancestors, how much would we know about them?  My father died when I was 19, and there has always been so much I’ve wondered about him.  I would love to have a copy of his auxiliary brain.

Also, imagine kids starting school with netbooks and keeping all their schoolwork, photos and videos they make throughout their K-12 careers.  Boy, I wished I had such a childhood treasure.  I wished I had taken photos of all my classmates, all my classrooms, hallways, schools and teachers.  I wish I had taken photos of all the homes I lived in, with photos of all the rooms, furniture and the streets I walked.  We always focused our cameras on families and friends, but I wished I had also taken photos of objects, like houses, rooms, streets, cars of my life, to aid my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much that I’d love to recall.  Maybe it has little true value, because I did forget all that stuff, but now I wish I had more evidence of my earlier life.  I wish I had photos of every dog and cat I owned.  I can barely picture my furry friends now, mostly just recall their names, like Blacky, Chief or Mike, and some I can’t even remember, which is sad.

I seriously doubt there is much real detail to download from our brains, if such a science fictional reality is ever possible.  I don’t know if personality profiles can be resurrected from netbooks, but I think my sense of personal history would be much stronger, and my self awareness, far more vivid, if my poor old brain had more solid evidence.

The Future of Netbooks

Thinking about these seven concepts of how we could store our life digitally and have it readily at hand, to help us with day-to-day activities, makes me picture all kinds of possibilities for netbooks.  I doubt our futures will include jacks in the back of our skulls like the people in the movie, The Matrix, but the netbook could become the mind-computer interface between ourselves and the net. 

With Bluetooth, we could have cell phone like headsets, so we could make calls, but also use our netbooks for dictating voice recordings, to aid our memory with verbal annotations.  Photo and video cameras could be combined with Bluetooth so anything we snap or video is immediately recorded to our external brains.  Medical monitoring devices could be combined with Bluetooth, netbooks and broadband for new kinds of health tracking and assessment.  Netbooks will only expand social networking, and if our youthful population is so close now because of cell phones, think what constant video phoning will do to their generation.

Netbooks might finally bring us into the age of videophone that’s been predicted by science fiction since Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon entertained tykes in the 1930s in the Sunday funnies.  Computer pundits thought we’d all be wearing computers by now, but maybe a good device that’s easy to carry will do instead.  This makes me predict purses will become common for men, at least leather over-the-shoulder pouches, or we’ll see more men with messenger bags.  But netbooks are so easy to carry, they may never get to far from our hands.

If netbooks had reversible LCD touch screens as a standard feature, so they could function like Tablet PCs, netbooks could replace the emerging ebooks devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.  Right now I find it easiest to carry a cell phone in my pants pocket and a Zune in my shirt pocket, one for phone service the other for audiobooks.  But if I have a netbook with me wherever I go, or nearby, then all I would need to carry on my person is a Bluetooth headset.  Should I predict the demise of the iPhone and iPod?

The deciding factors on buying a netbook is how big the screen and keyboard, and whether or not they are useable for long periods of typing and reading.  I bought an iPod touch to be my carry around computer, but I didn’t like typing with a single finger, and the screen was too small for browsing the web.  It’s pretty nice for reading text email, terrible for HTML email, very nice for checking movie times and looking at previews, pleasant for reading ebooks, although I might like a slightly larger screen, and very nice for Pandora and Wolfgang’s Vault. 

When netbooks first burst on the scene in 2007, their appeal included solid state storage over spinning hard drives, so, “My Life on a Hard Drive” might be a poor title soon, but if spinning drives disappear, I predict we’ll still call solid state devices hard drives too.  Technology is evolving away from moving parts, so we might eventually call netbooks, memory books, the name I want to use for them.  If the right technology pans out, and the right pricing for broadband emerges, memory books might be very common indeed. 

What will you put on your memory book?  How will you organize it.  How can a memory book improve your life?  A good portion of our population has been able to avoid the computer revolution, but if a memory book becomes so personally useful, will anyone choose to be a Luddite in this revolution?  As I age, and my memory falters and skips, being able to query a memory book becomes a very useful mental crutch.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Will it make me weaker or stronger?

I do know organizing my thoughts for this blog helps me retain words, and even learn to use new words.  Writing these blogs help me refine and distinguish discrete ideas and concepts.  In the past year I’ve met a number of people, usually young, who have asked me what my favorite movies, books and songs are, and I had a hard time making a quick list.  That disturbs me.  Maybe if I constantly worked to maintain a library of favorites on my memory book, or even just keep my memory book handy and constantly annotated a list of favorites, I would feel better.  Who knows, I might not even need to open my memory book, but my real memory of such lists would be fresh enough to have something to say in casual conversations.

I don’t know if my memory weakness is normal for someone my age, or if it portends Alzheimer’s in future years.  My wife already gets impatient with my slowness to respond, and hates when I tell her she better start acquiring more patience in case I get worse.  “You better not,” she warns me.  Having a memory book might become the glasses of my memories someday.  Or my memory book might become a very large hand to write notes on.  Or it my memory book might become a gym to exercise my neurons.   This is all fascinating to consider, and I can’t wait to test out these ideas.  I’m just not ready to buy a netbook yet.

JWH – 6/28/9

Science Fiction Classics on Audible.com

I read hundreds of science fiction books during my teenage years growing up in the 1960s.  Adolescence, rock music and science fiction came together in a perfect storm during that epic time.  What’s even more far out is how much fun I’m having rereading those books again in my fifties, but this time around I’m listening to them as audio books.  I’ve discovered that you really don’t love a book unless you read it several times over a lifetime, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you can’t really appreciate a book until you’ve both read and listened to it.  Inputting words through the eyes and ears are completely different ways to boot your brain into experiencing the full potential of fiction.

Many people have told me they can’t listen to audio books.  Well, audio book listening takes practice, just like reading.  And if you are like me, getting too comfortable with eyeball reading can be dangerous because it’s all too easy to get into eye track ruts.

It’s taken many years for publishers to start cranking out science fiction on audio.  Steve Feldberg over at Audible.com has been doing a bang up job of getting new audio book science fiction titles for his company.  I look at Audible’s new releases every day anxiously awaiting to see what new titles will show up, especially books from the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Recently More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon hit the New Releases page and I’m listening to it now.  It’s nothing like what I remember reading 40+ years ago.  I now feel like Sturgeon is the Faulkner of science fiction.  I just finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov that I considered a mildly fun, but mostly boring robot novel as a teen.  This time around I’m stunned by how good it is.  Time travel has always been a staple of science fiction, but time traveling backwards through my reading life is almost as much fun as having a real time machine, I kid you not.

On the Classics of Science Fiction list, three books tie for the #1 spot, by being on 25 out of 28 recommended lists:

  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I’ll put the titles available on Audible.com in bold.  Dune is now out in its second audio book edition, so I’m mighty glad to see More Than Human, but I’m wondering when The Demolished Man will show up.

Four books share the #2 spot by being on 24 out of 28 lists.

  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

Sadly, Audible only offers an old abridged version of Foundation, but I know that Books on Tape has all three books of the trilogy plus Prelude to Foundation and their titles do show up on Audible eventually.  The book I want to see most here is The Left Hand of Darkness, but Stand on Zanzibar and A Canticle for Leibowitz are books I’d buy immediately too.

There are three books tied for third (23 lists):

  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Audible streaks through here.  I profoundly enjoyed listening Childhood’s End recently.

Only one title holds the 4th place (on 22 lists):

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

At 5th place on 21 lists are:

  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth

I’m most anxious hear the Bester and Le Guin.  I read The Space Merchants last year and I was rather disappointed with it, so I’m not sure if it would sell well with an audio edition, although with the right reader, the satire and humor might jump out and make it more appealing.  Audible has 19 Le Guin audio books, just not her two most famous.

In 6th place on 20 lists are:

  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • City by Clifford Simak

I can vouch for the Dick and Simak, both authors really shine through on audio.  In fact, listening to PKD’s weird imaginary worlds is the best way to do get PKDicked.  I can’t believe Hal Clement isn’t on audio.

Lucky seventh place brings in seven titles (19 lists):

  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl

I’m hoping to listen to Rama and Scattered Bodies soon.  And I hope Steve Feldberg finds Gateway because it was the novel that brought me back to science fiction after I gafiated for a decade.

Coming in 8th place are three novels (18 lists):

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt

Fahrenheit 451 is a beautiful novel for bookworms to read and it’s especially appropriate to listen to because it lets you imagine trying to memorize it.  I don’t have much hope for the other two books getting on audio because they have a reputation for being hard to get into, but audio book editions might make them more accessible.

In ninth place we get five more titles (17 lists):

  • The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian Aldiss
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Of these, I’m most looking forward to the Aldiss.  That’s one trippy novel.   I listened to A Case of Conscience over the Christmas holidays and enjoyed it.  It makes a great companion book to Childhood’s End, because they both deal with religion.

Rounding out 10th place with seven books bringing the grand total to the Top 40 (16 lists):

  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch
  • Way Station by Clifford Simak
  • Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  • Slan by A. E. Van Vogt
  • The Humanoids by Jack Vance

Timescape is an elegant quiet novel that works very well on audio.  Way Station’s moody pastoral setting also works well on audio.  Again, I’ll be surprised to ever hear an audio edition of Stapledon.  I’m looking forward to Slan, which I’ll probably listen to soon, it should be a nice companion listen to More Than Human.  I listened to The Humanoids years ago and was impressed.  Now that I’m on a robot kick I should relisten to it.  Both Clockwork and Concentration are bleak novels that I might not get into the mood to hear for years.  I think I prefer the positive sense of wonder SF of the 1950s and 1960s right now.

There are 153 more books on the Classics of SF list, many of which are on audio.  There are four Samuel R. Delany novels, none of which have had audio editions that I’d love to hear.  I’m reading Babel-17 for the fourth time and I really ache to hear it, and it’s companion short novel, Empire Star, but I’m also very anxious to hear Nova, The Einstein Intersection and Dhalgren.

Other books from Audible that’s on the Classics of Science Fiction list:

  • Frankenstein
  • Lord of Light
  • A Princess of Mars
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Out of the Silent Planet
  • I, Robot
  • Starship Troopers
  • Ubik
  • Sirens of Titan
  • Slaughterhouse Five
  • Startide Rising
  • Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion
  • The Caves of Steal
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • Double Star
  • Blood Music
  • Gray Lensmen
  • Ender’s Game
  • The Big Time
  • The Illustrated Man
  • Red Mars
  • Doomsday Book

And many many more.

Probably everyone has a favorite science fiction novel they’d love to hear on audio.  Be sure and join Audible and go to their Contact Us page and click on the content request link.  I put in 7 books in 2003 and just notice that I got 5 of my wishes over the years.

JWH – 3/10/9