Science Fiction Overload

I’ve always loved science fiction but keeping up with the genre is a big damn job.  I constantly worry I’m going to miss a breakthrough novel with the impact of Neuormancer or The Life of Pi or Replay just because I was wasn’t keeping up with the times. 

As a young bookworm I read several books a week at a time when the science fiction section at the bookstore was a wire rack at the drugstore where I bought my Popular Science and Mad Magazines.  There just wasn’t that many new books being published every month and the real focus was on feeding an indiscriminate reading appetite.  Reading the book review sections in Amazing, Fantastic, Analog, Galaxy, If, and F&SF kept me perfectly up-to-date on the world of science fiction publishing in 1968, but it’s not enough for 2008.

Every year now Locus Magazine reports there are over 2,000 SF&F books being published as well as a large variety of magazines, graphic novels, online zines, ebooks and other outlets of SF&F storytelling.  The field is long past the size that I can comprehend.  I’m a small town bookworm living in a giant metropolis of fantastic fiction.  Last night I was watching a documentary on Discovery HD about Miami, the town I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.  My father’s family moved there in the 1920s.  The show made me realize just how much of the city and its glamorous history I had never noticed even though I had lived in many places in Dade County.  If I went back home I’d be just another tourist.  That’s how I feel about SF&F today.  I can’t believe I miss so much.

What I need is a Lonely Planet Guide to the vast hyperactive country of science fiction.  For years that was Locus Magazine’s job but even it overwhelms me today.  Thank God for the Internet, and a special prayer of thanks to the guys who invented RSS.  This year I’ve been on a voyage of discovery to find just the right RSS feeds that are easy to read and reduce the fire-hose of SF information overload down to a water fountain burble.

Of course I added the RSS feed to my old favorite Locus Magazine but strangely enough I was disappointed with its cryptic posts in my Outlook inbox.  Some RSS feeds send the entire article and others just send snack-size snippets to entice you to click on a hyperlink and jump over to their site to eat the whole whole meal.  The bite-size phrases from Locus seldom get me to byte.  I do click now and then and sometimes discover perfect little gems like 2007 SF/F/H Books on Year’s Best Lists, which cross-tabs several review sites to list the books that have gotten the most recommendations for best books of 2007 (first posted on 2/13/8).

This same article was written up by SF Signal on 2/20/8.  SF Signal is a fantastic web site that very successfully reports on the most tasty data bits about SF&F.  It serves the same function for our genre as Slashdot does for computer news.  I’m now trying to decide if I can abandon my RSS feed for Locus Magazine and depend on SF Signal to keep me up-to-date about anything worthy that Locus does publish.  In other words a plain RSS feed is not always perfect, so maybe a meta-feed is even better.

Of course the best solution would a single RSS feed that notified me from many sites just the stories I would likely love to read.  So if I could train my feed from SF Signal for just the kinds of stories I want to read then that would really save me some major time, but that might be too science fictional of an idea.  What I’m wishing for is a reading robot companion that gets to know me perfectly and then spoon feeds me just the right stories.

The trouble is I can only read maybe 7-10 science fiction and fantasy novels a year and maybe another 20-25 short stories.  (OK, yes SF&F is great, but there’s actually more healthy stuff to consume too, like science and history books, so I have to limit my SF&F candy.)  Logically I should ignore all books but the very best sellers and also read one SF best of the year anthology to sample the best of each year.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well doing that.  I can dip into several best of anthologies and only find a few real nuggets among the fool’s gold.  Not that a diamond to me won’t be cut glass to someone else, or vice versa.  And many best sellers are less than filling to me.

What I’m learning to do is search out blogs by various SF&F bookworms with the hope I’ll find a few taste-clones of myself.  I’m currently reading:

These readers don’t have my exact reading habits but they read much slower than review sites and they comment about books in a low key personal manner that I identify with.  This slows the pace down for finding books. I hope to add other blogs in the future.  I find it very easy to keep up with their blog feeds and figure I can eventually handle maybe ten or twelve blogging friends this way.  It’s a virtual book club and we chat with each other without even knowing the other is in the room, so to say.

I also find speciality sites like The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Audio to be very helpful too.  They cover more stuff than I ever want to handle, but I can easily pick and choose.  SF Audio has a good RSS feed with enough content in each post so I quickly click yay or nay with my mouse.  IRoSF is formatted like a magazine so it’s easy to pick and choose in the TOC, however I think I would like it better if they sent out RSS feeds of their full stories.  Although that might not be what they want after creating such a nice magazine format, but my desire does fit with the new reading paradigm of the RSS.

When it comes down to it we spend a lot of time reading emails, so RSS feeds simply spoon feed us reading material in email size bites.  I wish my Kindle was more of a true RSS reader.  I haven’t experimented with it using RSS feeds, but I will.  The Kindle is even easier to read than my Outlook client.  And that’s what my needs comes down to, an easy method to shovel just the right words into my head.  I’m getting old, so I can’t process as many words as I want, but these futuristic times really do have the technologies to do less with more.  Imagine if I could get all my reading through email sized chunks of words?

Sure, there are downsides to the emailization of reading.  It’s all fast food consumption and nothing is saved for studying.  What some clever programmer needs to do is marry Outlook with MediaWiki.  That way we could read and digest our words into something for long term memory.

I wish I had more time to read more books.  Reading reviews at least show me the myriad of ideas being explored in the world of SF&F.  To get an idea of what I mean just read January 2008: Short Fiction at IRoSF – there’s a reason why the old magazines were called Amazing Stories or Astounding Stories of Super Science and Fantastic Tales.  There’s a lot more to SF than spaceships and more to fantasy than hobbits. 

SF&F are the genres that require their writers to think up wild ideas, and boy to they ever.  And me, I’d love to explore than all, but I can’t.  I just can’t.  So what I want to do is find the most sense of wonder I can for my limited reading time.

Jim

Living in a Science Fiction World #1

    The Internet is truly amazing, but I’m not sure if Millennials who never knew a world without the Internet know that. I thought I’d pass on some old fart stories about how social networking among science fiction fans used to work. They aren’t as bad as the stories my father told me about walking miles to school in the snow in Nebraska, and as some jokester once quipped, uphill both ways. Actually, when I lived in New Jersey in the late 1950s there were times my little sister and I did walk miles to school in the snow. It was a blast. Life then was still very much like that movie A Christmas Story. No computers, cell phones, GPSes, video games, high definition TV, or iPods. Cars didn’t talk to you either.

    When I discovered science fiction in the early sixties I didn’t even know there was a separate genre of books and movies called Science Fiction. Well, it certainly wasn’t something they’d teach in school or your parents would tell you about. Before the Internet information was scarce. Back then the philosophy of adults were kids should be seen and not heard. It’s not like now where parents are your pals and they do everything for and with you. Kids lived in Kidworld and information passed from kid to kid. And if you worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, kidnet was completely unreliable. Theories about where babies and Santa came from were as varied as the religions of the world. Parents like to pretend their kids knew nothing, and would even smack a kid upside his head for saying something smart, so it was better just to pretend to be stupid. So how did I find out about science fiction?

    I knew I loved monster movies that would come on TV on Saturdays and sometimes they were about trips to Mars and Venus where four earth guys would find a whole civilization of pointy-bra wearing women. What more could a kid ask for in life? How could I find more movies like this? I liked reading, but mostly read non-fiction books about NASA, dinosaurs and war. In the sixth grade a teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to us after lunch and I wanted more books like that. In the seventh grade I stumbled onto When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, and then Jules Verne and H. G. Wells after seeing movies based on their books. It wasn’t until 1964 when my eighth grade teacher produced a list of approved science fiction writers I could read that I learned the magic words were “Science Fiction.” I then got systematic about finding SF books. A major discovery was some libraries even had SF sections, like at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. Now that I had discovered this wonderful genre I wanted to meet other fans.

    My point of that long story is to explain that ideas passed by word of mouth. Networking used to be called friendship. Nobody talked about computers or owned one, they were mysterious giant machines mostly referred to in cartoons, and normal people couldn’t comprehend them except in humor. Not only did kids not have cell phones, but grown-ups frowned on the idea of kids using the family phone. People joke about TV being a vast wasteland with 200 channels and nothing on, but back when I was a kid there were just three channels and the Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched wasn’t very informative about the real world. Kids today just don’t realize how rich they are in information.

    I got to thinking about this when I was reading my RSS feed for SFSignal and it made me realize just how easy it is to locate people interested in the same subject I am. In 1965 I read science fiction pretty much in isolation. I had no friends that read science fiction and whenever I’d meet someone that did we’d strike up an excited conversation. In other words, meeting people with similar interests was random. The science fiction book section wasn’t at a mega-bookstore but was half a twirling wire rack of paperbacks at the drug store.

    Social networking meant joining a club of likeminded individuals and meeting face-to-face during monthly or weekly meetings. Before I could drive I felt like I belong to a group by joining The Science Fiction Book Club or subscribing to Galaxy and Analog magazines that had fan letter columns.

    Before computers it seemed like science fiction fans were few and far between. Communication with SF fans was through letters in the magazines or fanzines. At first I lurked, like lurkers on a BBS (a bulletin board system, an early attempt a social networking via computers). I just watched and learned. In 1970, just after I moved to Memphis, I noticed a letter in Ted White’s
Amazing from a Memphis guy and I called him up. He told me about the Memphis Science Fiction Association. That’s where I met Dr. Darrell C. Richardson and Claude Saxon, two old time collectors of science fiction and pulps, and Greg Bridges, a guy my age who wanted to produce a club fanzine.

    Before there was email, IM and text messaging, there was something called a letter. Most people wrote letters by hand using a pen and forming their personally invented typeface by scratching ink marks on pieces of paper. Individual fonts were hard to decipher because size and shape varied widely. Fans, as we science fiction fans would call ourselves, used a typewriter to create letters to send to one another. Letters worked like emails in that they went anywhere in the world with the correct email mailing address, but they were slow, usually taking weeks to make a two way exchange.

    Typewriters are like the keyboard of your computer, but they had a mechanism for handling paper – imagine a printer built into your keyboard – with a typeface installed on a piano key type arrangement that struck an inked ribbon above the paper and left a mark. Typewriting was sort of like using Microsoft Word but infinitely aggravating. You couldn’t edit or correct without a lot of trouble, so the easiest thing to do was strike over words with mistakes. Yet it was a giant step in technology over handwritten letters. The technology originated during Mark Twain’s lifetime, so think steampunk. If you wanted to save a copy of your email message, it required inserting two pieces of paper sandwiching a piece of carbon paper into the printing mechanism – very messy. It was more work than walking miles to school in the snow.

    My first proto-computer like high tech gadget was a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. After I joined Memphis Science Fiction Association I was brave enough to join an APA – amateur press association. APAs go way back to the 1930s I think, and I joined SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Association), an informal network of 25-35 people who communicate via publishing zines. Think listserv. You printed 35 copies of your zine, usually mimeographed, and sent them to the central editor, who collated them with the zines of all the other members, and then snail mailed the bundles quarterly back to all the members. Again, picture mailing list, but instead of a computer program doing the work, an actual person had to do all the work. Like letters, this listserv took months for a two way communication.

    Very few people, mainly hard core science fiction fans and other nuts took the trouble to be in an APA. 99.999% of people just communicated by talking. There were probably less than two dozen lists APAs in the world. The hunger to know likeminded people and form worldwide communication was limited to those crazy Buck Rodgers fans and similar sub-cultures. At a higher level fans tried to create their own magazines, also called zines, but genzines, rather than apazines (you see we had our own jargon). These had circulations from 20 to 800. They were like frozen web pages or blogs, made out of thick colored paper, again mimeographed and stapled together.

    The mimeograph machine was a printer, but very primitive. Affordable models were hand cranked. You’d buy stencils, long sheets of waxy paper that you would type on. Striking a typewriter key on a stencil cleared away the wax leaving a thin area ink would ooze through. Fanzine producers would always get the best typists in the club to type up the stencils, because any mistakes made a mess to be corrected with corflu – you figure that one. Stencils were attached to the mimeograph drum that bled ink through the typed letters on the stencil thus printing on the paper rolling under the drum one sheet at a time. Printing with mimeograph machines was as messy as changing oil in a car, but then Gen Y and Millennials wouldn’t know about that either.

    In other words, you had to really want to communicate badly to spend your personal money and time to go through such a dirty process. Producing a zine, like I said, was like creating a web page or blog, but you had to convince someone to read it. There was no Google. Usually you traded your zine for someone else’s zine. Again, another primitive network. Instead of having DNS servers, some people would be zine reviewers, because you could subscribe to their zine and have a Google like listing of current zines to mail your zine to – a type of push technology.

    Think of a zine as a web page that could only be read if you held it in your hands and the URL was identical to the creator’s home mailing address. Some would take weeks to load receive. Getting a zine in the mailbox was major excitement and I got them from as far as Australia and England. It was a world wide web, just made of paper and very slow.

    It used to be so thrilling to get a SAPS mailing. Think of a mailing list that takes months to get a reply. My zine, The Blue Bomber, named after my first car contained blog like natter about what I was reading, and then a long list of comments about the other zines in the previous bundle. For my first issue of The Blue Bomber, I had to drive from Memphis to Tupelo to use my cousin’s husband’s church mimeograph. He was the pastor. So my next high tech gadget lust was for a Gestetner mimeograph which I bought with Greg Bridges and another fan in a cooperative printing venture.

    Fans lived and died by the typer. This was long before word processing. Kids just don’t know how easy life is if you haven’t tried using a typewriter. In 1977 I got a job as an IBM MT/ST machine operator, which was a primitive word processor using two tape drives to edit and save files connected to an electric typewriter. Boy, I thought I was living in the future using that machine. As soon as I heard about personal computers I wanted one, but it was 1978 before I could afford one, then a lowly Atari 400, which wasn’t good enough for the task. I then got a TI 99/4A which also proved useless as a word processor. It was when I got a Commodore 64 that I first had all the components for word processing – CPU, disk drive and printer. By then I discovered bulletin boards and networks like Genie and CompuServe with my 300bps modem.

    This put communication with other science fiction fans in real time and that was a major breakthrough. All of a sudden I found thousands of people who loved to talk about science fiction books. Eventually I created my own 2-line BBS with my second 286 PC clone (our current chips should be a 886 by now). At first monitors were green screen and all text. Then I remember spending a small fortune for a VGA monitor with 256 colors. This was the 1980s.

    Luckily I worked at a university where we had access to BITNET and other networks including the wonderful NNTP (network news) for group communications. By then I was finding science fiction fans from around the world to talk to by quick messaging called emails, but not the flashy emails of today’s Outlook. By then graphical operation systems were showing up and we could send photos, if you know what I mean, and share cool things like Linux.  Finally Mosaic showed up and computer networks blasted into orbit.

    A lot has happened in the last 43 years. If I could take my current computer with its hi-rez 20″ widescreen LCD to the past and show my 1965 self he would have thought it more wonderful than anything science fiction had ever imagined. If I could show him how people shared interests with blogs and social networking software it would have blown his little mind. In 1965 I dreamed that by 2008 I would be living on Mars, but living on Earth in 2008 with the Internet is far more science fictional and far out.

    Hell, science fiction never predicted the iPod, but don’t get me talking about how much trouble collecting music was when it was stored on vinyl discs.

JWH

Too Many Opinions on the Kindle and What it Says about the Internet

    Amazon introduced the Kindle on Monday and I ordered one on Wednesday. It didn’t take me long to decide I wanted one even with all the bad web press. I can understand why most casual readers wouldn’t feel the need for an ebook reader, but I can’t understand why so many people are attacking the device. I need large print books to enjoy reading, and the Kindle offers me the widest selection of reading for instant large font viewing. Easy decision. However, on Monday, the Kindle seemed to generate more opinions than the Presidential election.

    If you visit the Kindle site linked above you will find hundreds of customer reviews, most of which are by people who don’t own a Kindle and don’t plan to buy one. This really annoyed me. I shop Amazon all the time and I love reading the customer reviews but I hate when someone uses the service to just post their vague opinions. It wouldn’t bother me at all if Amazon only allowed people who purchased a product to post a review.

    Amazon releases a revolutionary gadget and hundreds if not thousands of writers across the net shoot it down because of whim opinions about the concept of ebooks. I think we need to show some self-control here because the ratio of signal to noise is cluttering up the Internet. Slashdot.org has always had that problem, as has every forum, bulletin board and mailing list since the start of the net. Slashdot however, has mechanisms to try to control the noise. I’m wondering if self-control shouldn’t be part of net-etiquette. Unless you have actual experience or expert knowledge, limit your comments to blogs, chats and fun forums, and let general information sites work at being clear and focused on their subjects. What if books, magazines and newspapers just let anyone jump in and say stuff?

    I’m sure Amazon appreciates having an active community on their customer reviews, but as a customer trying to buy something I’d like reviewers with actual experience posting comments. When I read general news and magazines sites I want a qualified person writing up a worthy review. I hate googling a product I’m considering buying and getting endless hits with a couple paragraphs of natter in the returns. I also hate getting dozens of product comparison pages that have no real information. People complain about Wikipedia not being valid, but it does have mechanisms to police its content. I think we need something like that for the web in general.

    I’m the first to talk since I’m a verbose bastard but blogs are designed for diarrhea of the brain. On the other hand, does every web page need a forum page attached to it allowing just anyone to chime in? Slashdot made a business out of the concept and they make it work with control. When I search the Internet I’m trying to find solid information about a particular topic, like when I was shopping for the Kindle.

     When David Pogue from the New York Times writes about the Kindle I expect a certain level of real information and he delivers because he’s an expert on technology and he has actually used a Kindle. When I go to Amazon and read customer reviews on the Kindle I expect to find less professional writers but ones who have actually bought the device and have used it. I also expect to read on any magazine or news site, whether based on a print edition, or purely online journalism, a professional level of writing based on actual experience.

    It’s too bad HTML doesn’t have tags like <news release></news release>, <review></review>, <opinion></opinion>, <discussion></discussion>, <news></news>, <scholarly></scholarly> or <advertisement></advertisement> and Google could filter returns based on those and other tags. Of course Google is in the business to sell ads so maybe it doesn’t have a real incentive to police the quality of information. The obvious solution is to learn to trust only specific sites and not use Google.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use a search engine that allowed users to control how deep and wide to return searches? What if search engines had check boxes for:

  • Sites you have listed with us (we could list our favorites to save)
  • Top 100 sites
  • Top 1,000 sites
  • Top 10,000 sites
  • All the billions of pages
  • Sites noted for their authority
  • Scholar sites
  • Governmental sites
  • Sites tied to a print publication
  • Sites written by professional writers
  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Etc.

    When you go down to your favorite bookstore and buy a magazine you expect it to have high quality content, even if you’re just looking for celebrity gossip. I’ve gotten so used to using Google that maybe I should go do a search on search engines and see if someone hasn’t already developed the one I wish for above.

    I’m tired of web pages that look like Venus flytraps for Google ads. I’m also sick of writers and articles that have an array of icons trying to get me to increase their readership on forum sites like Slashdot and Digg. I accept the reality of advertisements, but integrate the ad visually into the web page like magazines do in print. And if you want me to read your content, format the text so it’s easy to read. I’m tired of web pages looking like racing cars. And if I’m going to have to wait through an ad page before seeing my content you better make sure the content is worth it.

    The content level of the web is quickly moving towards total noise. Even in blogs and forums I think we all could spend more time focusing on what we write and trying to be clear, because many blog writers are now producing content that’s better than some professional sites. Maybe we should all work on content and spend less time trying to trick the system into returning our link on the first page of a Google search. I hope I’m not hypocritical.

JWH

    

Information Overload

    I often think about that movie Short Circuit with the little robot named Number Five who kept shouting, “More input, more input.” That’s how I feel about life. I wish I could process information as fast as Number Five.

    This morning I cleaned off several chaotic stacks of mail from my desk. I have hundreds of unread magazines – and for some insane reason I responded positively to several ads to subscribe to even more magazines. I also have hundreds of unread books waiting patiently on my bookshelves to get my undivided attention, as well as dozens of audio books in my iTunes library waiting to be heard.

    Each magazine represents at least a couple hours of good reading, each book wants from six to sixty hours of my time. My DVR is 94% full with many hours of great high definition video waiting for me to watch. My NetFlix DVDs just sit around, and my CDs and LPs wait quietly for years at a time to get played. In other words, I’m backlogged by thousands of hours, maybe even tens of thousands of hours. If I could only read like Number Five – as fast as pages could flip.

    So what should I do? Obviously, to stop buying books and magazines is one good solution I keep telling myself. That’s easier said than done. I’m like a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter. Whenever I see a great looking book, I buy it thinking I’ll get to it someday during my dwindling days on Earth. (I just tried to go and tear up three subscription renewal letters sitting in front of me, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

    What I would like, assuming I could achieve some theoretically self-control that’s never surfaced in my fifty-years of living, would be to own only one book at a time. I’d go down to the bookstore every time I finished a book and enjoy shopping for my next read. It would be fun to carefully select just the right volume to purchase; one I’d dedicate myself to for the next week or so. Ditto for magazines – instead of stacks of them around the house, I’d only have one that I’d cart from room to room until I finished. Then it would be kosher to buy another. For movies and music I’d use Netflix and Rhapsody. My house certainly would be less cluttered.

    I can really picture this. It would be “just in time information” like industries that use just in time parts for manufacturing – no warehousing of information. What I need to make this fancy daydream come true is the ultimate Ebook reader. To go with the device I’d need a service like Netflix for books and magazines. The key is to be able to get any book or magazine I wanted when I want it. Since books go out of print, and magazines are as ephemeral as whims, the impulse is to buy them to save for when I’m in just the right mood.

    The web is a great metaphor for what I need. When I want to know something I go to Google and type in a query. I don’t need to store up answers. I just need to ask when I have a question. With an Ebook I could call up a book to read when I’m in a mood for that particular book. That’s how Rhapsody music service works. I think of a song I want to hear and type in the name and play it. If I had such a company that would provide my reading material, my life would be so much more organized.

    Ignoring the theoretical future of online possibilities, is there a practical solution? Could I do all my reading on the web and replace my magazine habit? Many magazines offer all or part of their content online. I almost bought an issue of Astronomy Magazine last night because I wanted to read the article, “How Large Will Telescopes Get?” I just checked. It’s not online. I also thought about buying the latest New Yorker for the short story, “1966.” It’s not online either. However, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” in the latest issue of Mother Jones that I was eyeing is online. I have two envelopes with offers near my keyboard. Both Newsweek and PC Magazine promise me a year of their product for $20 – good buys since they are weekly and twice-monthly publications. However, both of these mags provide a lot of content online.

    I could easily make a web page linking all my favorite magazines to a quick-to-scan system that would allow me to regularly browse their content. A distinct advantage of reading magazine articles on the web is I can send emails to my friends pointing out great reads. I should give this idea a try.

    Another idea is to just go to the library and read magazines there. Let professionals manage the stacks and subscriptions. I used to work in a periodicals department at a library and we had lots of regular readers. I volunteered for Friday nights and got to know a regular crowd. However, reading on the throne in the smallest room at home is kind of important to me. Reading Discover magazine first thing in the morning is devotional, in its own way.

    Now all of these solutions ignore actual content. Another way to manage information overload is to pick subjects I want to study and then ignore all the rest. Take the Iraq War. There must be millions of people worrying over that topic. I’m sure they don’t need me. I am fascinated by the One Laptop Per Child concept and how greedy industrial giants are spoiling Nicholas Negroponte’s dream machine for poor kids of the world. Going on an information diet, I could make a web site that tracked all the subjects I was really interested in and felt I had time to track. I have noticed that the people who get the most done in life are those who focus narrowly on their goals.

    A radical solution to information overload is to become a Zen monk, you know, be here now, one with the moment kind of guy, and all that rot. It does have its appeals. But I’m afraid I’ll end up like by tabby cat – content but ill informed. I could apply that Zen focus to a goal, like writing a book. Then when I stick my head into the maelstrom of data I’d only stare at the bits that would be useful to my writing project. I have to admire writers that pick a big topic, like the life of Einstein or the Jamestown colony and focus on it for years, finally producing a summation of that study.

    Well, I have several ideas to think about. I can become systematic at gathering more information, or I can become focused and narrow the selection of information I try to handle. I have come to this conclusion before. I have written this essay to myself many times in the last forty years, always coming to the same conclusion – I always decide my life should be project based and focused. However, once I clear my thoughts with writing this essay I always go back to hummingbird mode and flit from fact to fact, mindlessly gorging on information.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

    Libraries used to be repositories of knowledge. Writers wanted their books bought by libraries so they could be preserved for all time. Times have changed and their labors of love are being lost. Quite often when I buy a used book on Amazon.com I get an ex-library edition back in the mail. I recently bought Stories of Your Life and Othersby Ted Chiang, an exceedingly fine collection of science fiction/fantasy writing. Its previous owner was the Palm Springs Library in California. It’s easy to spot how many ex-library books I own because their call number labels stand out along the rows of books in my bookshelves. To me this is a literary tragedy.

    Libraries have made a paradigm shift from storehouses of culture to panderers of popular taste. Librarians use computers to track usage and if a book hasn’t been checked out for a certain period of time, neglected volumes are pulled from the collection and made to walk the plank, thus falling into the sea of oblivion. Libraries were meant to preserve books and copyright laws were meant to protect authors, but I’m not sure if that’s not more love’s labour’s lost.

    While libraries dash to digitize crumbling ancient books modern books are disappearing too. With strict copyright laws books are “protected” for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. There are millions of books published and most are never reprinted or even make back the advance paid to their authors. The last time I saw anything on this subject; it took on average, selling 2,500 copies of a hardback novel to break even for a publisher. That’s not a huge print run. Like giant sea turtles laying piles of eggs, few ever hatch and live to find homes in the sea.

    I collect books by Lady Dorothy Mills, a writer of travel and fantasy adventure books from the 1920s and early 1930s. Her fifteen books have almost disappeared from the Earth, with just a handful for sale at any given time. Her books are still within copyright, so they can’t be reprinted on the web. Lady Dorothy Mills is a forgotten writer. It’s doubtful she gets many new readers – I feel I’m one of her last fans. If her labors of love where still on library shelves or reprinted as e-books on the web, Lady Mills might have a few more fans.

    Copyright laws exist to help writers make money, but most writers labor for love. It’s like Las Vegas, a few gamblers make a killing, some win a little, and most leave the glittering casinos with empty pockets. Copyright laws should be changed to help the writers who don’t make money. I’d suggest that any book that hasn’t been reprinted for ten years be allowed to be republished free on the web. However, if the book is ever used for profit the same lengthy copyright laws should still apply. There’s always a chance that if enough people in the digital world rediscover a book it will help resurrect interest in a novel for the people in the analog world.

    Books are owned by the writers, but they belong to their readers. Fans are what keep books alive. Once a book comes into existence it deserves every chance to live. Sure the writers deserve every dime they can get, but a book deserves every reader it can find. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and bootleg albums. Dylan and his publishers may want to protect his catalog and reputation, but as a Dylan fan I feel it’s my right to be able to listen to any song he recorded during 1964-1966. I love Blonde on Blonde, and have bought it many times in many forms, but I love those songs so much I feel it’s my right to hear any version of them that still exists. Once an artist creates a work of art, fans have the right to explore and experience that work to the nth dimension. Artists have the right to sell access, but if they don’t offer such access for sale, it should be wide open to free access. The reality of the web reflects that and I think copyright laws should too.

    It’s my hunch that if writers can’t have money they might like readers for their love’s labour’s lost.

    

Magazines v. Web v. Newspapers v. Television

    Yesterday I sat down and read through the latest issue of Time Magazine. I am an information junky, but I don’t read magazines as much as I used too, not since the web. Reading the web is an exciting way to take in data – I can start with Slashdot and follow a link to MSN to an article entitled “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen,” read it, and from there start googling the concept for more information. It could lead to an hour of diversion and maybe even a couple hours of blog writing. The casual way to read a magazine is to start with the cover, flip and read until you reach the back cover. With magazines and newspapers you read by picking and choosing what you like, but they are self contained because they don’t have hyperlinks. Television is a horse of a different color altogether. If you discount channel surfing, picking a show and watching it from start to finish, means being a captive audience. If you count channel surfing, then television is more like web surfing, but not quite the same because a couple hundred channels is nothing to the billions of web pages.

    What surprised me yesterday while reading Time was the quality of the experience. I seldom sit and read a whole magazine anymore. I read the letters to the editor, the small and large pieces. Towards the end I started skimming more, but I tried to take in the magazine as a whole. It felt like I got a small snapshot of what was going on in the world this week. If the web didn’t exist magazines would be my web. The world through a magazine eye felt distinctly different than the world I see from surfing the web or watching the television news or reading The New York Times.

    The cover story intrigued me, “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School” by David Van Biema. So did another story that was the cover story in the Europe, Asia and South Pacific editions, “The Truth About Talibanistan” by Aryn Baker. I’m an atheist but I find the study of the Bible fascinating. I’ve often wondered why it isn’t taught in school. Of course the way I would teach it by linking it to anthropology, history, language, psychology, sociology, grammar, etc., is very different from the way it is being taught. While reading the article I was itchy to click and research. Then reading the article about the Taliban I was reminded of seeing a documentary on Frontline about the same topic, “The Return of the Taliban.” They didn’t tell the same story, but that’s not the issue I want to get into.

    Seeing the Frontline story on HDTV had far greater impact than reading the article in Time, but the magazine article had more to think about. This brings back the old issue of television journalism versus print journalism. Right after reading that issue of Time, I went and watched “Arctic Passage” on NOVA on HDTV about the mysterious and tragic Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. While watching that show I was struct by how much richer the experience of learning was through the 56-inch HDTV than reading and seeing photos in a magazine or book.

    The magazine was about ideas in my head. I read many exciting bits of information that made me think and want to write and research. The show about Franklin was rich and educational in the best way and I was satisfied with the subject when it finished. I have read about the Franklin expedition before, and the NOVA site has more reading material, but the show left a sense of completeness. Given its fifty plus minutes, the documentary makers summed up the issue in a very satisfying way. I then selected from my PVR, “Monster of the Milky Way,” another NOVA documentary.

    The impact was fantastic. I read a lot of astronomy magazines and websites, but the 56″ astronomical photos and videos they showed were stunning. The animations were gorgeous and awe inspiring and totally filled me with a sense of wonder. The trouble is NOVA only comes on once a week with maybe 20-25 new shows a year. What if every topic I wanted to study had a 55 minute NOVA quality documentary to present the information – would that be the best way I should take in information? I don’t know. Maybe? It certainly feels more real than reading.

    Newspapers, magazines and the web are great for taking in mass quantities of informational tidbits. The web excels at ready access to information, but I’ve got to wonder if NOVA made a documentary about “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen” it would blow away the reading experience of the MSN.com piece. What if the web was surfing a vast library of high definition videos and our computers had 24-inch 1980×1200 high definition screens? What value does the written word have over the spoken word with visuals?

    I buy courses from The Teaching Company and I always agonize over whether to get the DVD option, the audio edition and whether or not I need the print supplement. Their DVDs aren’t hi-def, and just contain photos to supplement the lectures, but often those photos have great impact.

    Do I prefer the NOVA shows because hi-definition television is as close to reality as any media can get? When I attend lectures I hate PowerPoint presentations and videos. I want the speaker to say something interesting and be engaging. I just finished a very rewarding book, Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers. I have to admit that if that book were presented as a long mini-series on PBS it would probably be my favorite way to study Twain. Photos and videos just have too much impact to ignore. Maybe that’s why YouTube is so successful on the web. But would I learn as much about Mark Twain, or remember as much?

    Where does that leave me as a writer? Should I add photos to my blog? Should I go into video blogging? Should we all become documentary makers? Blogs tend to be of lower quality writing than professional magazine writing, and video blogging is a far cry from PBS documentaries. However, what if communication between people becomes more visual in nature? Cell phones with cameras are getting popular. People email me digital photos all the time. How soon will it be before I start getting personal videos? I already get joke videos. What if the video we got were high definition?

    The question I started to write about today is: What’s the best media or method for getting a feel for what’s going on in the world each day? Television is like having extra eyes that rove the planet. Blogs are like getting to read people’s diaries. Newspapers and magazines are like getting letters from well traveled friends who are great writers. Communication speeds are so fast now that news delays range from hours to weeks. In the nineteenth century it took weeks or months and sometimes years to hear about things going on around the world. Of course reading non-fiction books is like getting the news centuries late, and with cosmology the news is a billion years old.

    Slowly high definition televsion is coming to news programs. Watching The Today Show or The Tonight Show in high-def on a large screen has a very real immediate feel. The disadvantage of television over magazines is details. For me, seeing details in print are more memorable than hearing them. I can study them and reread easily. It’s much easier to quote a magazine than to quote a television show. And I tend to think print is more philosophical than the visual media. But most of my book reading is through audio books, mainly because I have more time for them that way, and the fact that I think I experience novels better though audio than though my eyes. That’s because I listen to books at a conversational speed, but speed read them with my eyes, often skimming words. But to study them for a test I’d need to see the printed page.

    What I’d really like is to combine high-definition television with computers and the Internet. The PBS sites are doing something like what I’m thinking about. You can get a transcript of their shows for study and quoting, you can link to videos to show friends, it stays on the web for reference and it has hyperlinks for more surfing, but I need to see the videos in high definition on my computer screen. When will that happen?

    Imagine a Wikipedia entry for every topic no matter how tiny, and each entry had links to all the media related to that topic. So for the Franklin expedition there would be links to all the documentaries, the primary research, secondary research, articles, essays, photos, diaries, etc. Also imagine this Wikipedia’s front page with news streaming in about what’s going on in the world in current time. I picture a map of the world with a visual interface that helps spot new and interesting events. Other tools could track with keywords and photos. Let’s say the idea of teaching the Bible in school becomes newsworthy in this interface and catches my eye. Wouldn’t it be fun to follow a link that takes you to cameras in the classroom? What if one teacher calls up a documentary about translating the Bible in different times and places, and I could fall out of real time to watch it?

    A lot could happen in our future when it comes to information.