Ad Pollution

In these bad economic times, it might be heresy to attack marketing, but advertising is starting to crush my innate cheery disposition.  The web is being choked with ads, reducing the signal-to-noise ratio so low that many sites and searches are worthless.  Google, the darling of weberati, whose motto is “don’t be evil,” has become corrupted by advertising revenue.  Slashdot.org should stop making Borg allusions about Microsoft, and start making them about Google.  Too often a search on Google leads to page after page of links to sites wanting to sell me something directly, or links that take me to honey-pot pages, with tiny bits of info nestled in large screen acreage of ads.  For the most part, I’ve replaced the World Wide Web with Wikipedia when I’m searching for knowledge.

I stopped listening to the radio decades ago because of advertising and annoying disc jockeys.  I can only watch TV because of PBS, HBO and DVRs.  I know people who have stopped watching television altogether because of the advertisements.  I’m quickly approaching the decision to stop going to movies because of advertisements.  The only place I don’t mind advertising is the Sunday newspaper, but I feel guilty about all that wasted paper.  Shouldn’t there be a better way?

There are sites on the web that will reward or pay you for looking at ads.  What we need are systems to bring ads to us when we need and want them.  There are times when I’m shopping that I would be open to sales pitches, and I wouldn’t even mind an AI shopping companion.  Marketing really should be on the basis of don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Are ads really effective?  Sure, sometimes.  Those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” TV mini-dramas from Apple are effective at making me hate them for selling misinformation and promoting style. I’ve never bought a Mac.  Microsoft is miserable at creating ads, and I always buy their products?  Neither decision has anything to do with advertising.  When I want to buy something, I research it, and then look for the most convenient place to shop with the lowest prices.  And how often do you see ads on TV selling on the basis of price?  I suppose if Apple ran ads that said, “Buy the latest Mac Book with the hi-tech aluminum cases for $899,” I might rush out and buy one.  Instead they sell comedy on TV, without mentioning the details of their products, or the price of the one I want.  Me to Apple, if you want “me” to be a Mac, then sell that $1299 Mac Book for $899, and I’ll come visit your store.

My point is I’ll buy something I’ve studied if the price is right.  The rest of the time I’m just avoiding ads like I avoid mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, germs and viruses.  Of course, the real test of reality is whether or not the various forms of mass communication could exist without advertising.

If there were no advertising, how many television channels would we have?  How many TV shows would exist?  How many college sports programs would exist?  How many professional sports teams would exist?  Can you imagine racing cars without their advertising paint jobs?  HBO and PBS exist without advertising and have outstanding programs.

I’m not alone in my aversion to advertising.  It’s obvious some big economic bubbles have burst this year, and I’m wondering if the advertising bubble will not burst soon too?  As we move into a world-wide recession we’re going to see a lot of companies cut their advertising budgets.  Unless there is real proof that ads bring in dollars, companies will start seeing how naked their marketing programs really are, and close them down.  Recession has a way of cutting out the fat, and mean vicious recessions, like I’m guessing we’re moving into, trims away every gram of grease.

I would like to see more marketing along the HBO model.  I’d rather pay $5 or $10 a month per channel for a handful of quality channels, and abandon all the rest.  I’d rather pay a subscription fee to an online digital magazine if they could provide me the content without the advertising.  Theater owners and movie distributors need to cut the ads before people give up on going to the movies.  And that’s for three reasons.  One I hate seeing the ads.  Two I hate people trying to find seats at the last moment trying to avoid the ads.  And three, I hate that they waste my Saturday afternoon time.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are occasions when I want ads.  I’ve been meaning to buy some new shirts, and have wished I could get some stylish ones that fit better.  My wife complains about the constant boring shirts I wear now.  I wouldn’t mind going to a web site and telling it I’m in the mood to buy shirts and then see some healthy competition to market me new styles, especially if I had more choice in sizing and material.

I don’t know what to do about the web.  I can’t believe that all those web pages with Google ads really make enough money to pay their bills.  I was just researching on optical astronomical interferometers and I couldn’t believe the “Ads by Google” signs I was seeing on pages with links to scientific papers.  The reality is we have too many web sites trying to direct us to too few places with real content by paying for their useless help with web ads.  Go away.  Please, turn of your servers, and go away.  If you try to make money on the web by solely linking to other sites, you are worthless.  Google and other top level search engines can do all that work.

Comment to Microsoft, if you want to beat Google, offer a search engine that is based on subscription income and only provides links to 100% content.  I can’t guarantee it will work, but if you offered such a service for $19.95 a year, and you filtered out all commercial web pages, you might have an alternative to Google.  If I’m sick enough of Google’s commercial results and willing to pay, there might be others like me.

This recession is going to shake up how we earn money and how we spend money.  Inflationary bubbles will be bursting everywhere.  I think the advertising world will be one big bubble that’s going to pop big time.  In all the various mass market venues, we’re going to see disappearing players, fewer networks on TV, fewer magazines and newspapers, and fewer web sites.  I’m an ordinary guy, so if I’m reaching the tipping point of running away from advertising, I imagine there are lots of other ordinary folk feeling the same way.

JWH – 10-25-08

Science As Fantastic As Science Fiction

Science fiction magazine editors often complain they don’t get enough science fiction stories submitted to them.  What they need to do is convince the popular science writers showcased in the latest edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 to also write fictionalized versions of their latest essays.  Or maybe, all those would-be science fiction writers stuffing their slush piles should study this volume, integrate the ideas into their work, and then they’d impress those editors.  I kid you not, there are some far-out, fantastic, sense-of-wonder concepts in these essays.  Just do a bit of sampling here, and you’ll see what I mean.

Start with the Freeman Dyson prediction about green technology.  He’s not talking about windmill generators, but plants with silicon leaves, engineering biology and taking over the role of evolution to remake the Earth.  If you want to know about alien minds, trying reading the essays by Colapinto and Cook.  They don’t look to the stars and little green men who think different, but to South America.  Then Jon Mooallem looks at the history of people seeking anti-gravity and gravity radio.  Each essay, no matter how down to earth, could be used to inspire SF stories.

Here’s the table of contents with links to the articles on the web:

Just the fact that I can link to full-text versions of all but three of these articles on the web is science fictional.  It represents a major paradigm shift in copyright, economics and the dissemination of knowledge.  And I’m not linking to these articles to give you free reads, you should buy the volume and study it.  I’m linking to web pages as a way to review this book, because just sampling these links will give you a taste of what I’m talking about far better than I could with descriptive words.  Most people do not like to read off computer screens, but having these essays online is an excellent way to recommend them to your friends.

This collection is a snapshot of our times but far different from what you see on the news at night.  These articles are overwhelmingly about the future, either predicting fantastic new developments, or warning us of dire happenings if things continue as they are now.  All the concepts that science fiction writers use to write visionary science fiction.  I’ve been getting this volume each year for awhile now, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else that recommends it.  That’s a real shame.  Science was never so accessible, so why isn’t it more popular?

Could this be why the SF mag editors aren’t seeing that many science fiction stories cross their desks?  Because we now live in a world that seems science fictional compared to what we grew up in just a few decades ago.  I was watching a new cop show called Life on Mars, about a detective thrown into the distant past of 1973, and I was struck by the scene where he’s wishing for a cell phone.  Or another time when he mutters about wanting a computer.  I’d love to time travel back to see The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, or the Beatles in Germany, but I don’t know if I could live without my sixth sense, the Internet.

The world and election I remember seeing through a 19″ black and white TV in 1960 is so very different from how I see reality in 2008 while watching a 52″ high definition set.  I think we take science for granted now, and back then science was that gee-whiz Mr. Science stuff that nobody paid any attention to other than the proto-geeks.  Many of the science stories in this year’s collection come from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other mundane periodicals.  Today I can switch on my TV and see an hour documentary on the history of the black hole, and the controversy over the information paradox that Stephen Hawking had proposed that angered scientists for years.  When I was growing up, my choices were Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

In the early days of three channel television, there wasn’t room for physics and astronomy shows.  Today I can find several science documentaries on every night, and not boring ones like we used to see on 16mm film in science class, but fantastic shows with killer computer graphic clips beautifully illustrating cutting edge science, like string theory and the effects of dark matter of galaxy formation.

Sheila Williams, the editor at Asimov’s SF Magazine, complains she receives too many stories beginning with exploding space ships.  That was a popular way to begin a story back in the 1930s.  Explosions are dramatic and quickly lead to action, but what people want today are new far-out ideas to create sense-of-wonder SF, and evidently too many potential science fiction writers are living on ancient clichés.  They need to be reading the science essays and watching the science documentaries on TV, because the mundane world has passed old science fiction by, leaving it quaint and suitable for nostalgia retrospectives.

The Donlan and Dyson articles inspired me to envision fantastic changes in our everyday landscapes.  Donlan writes about scientists wanting to repopulate the American plains with substitute “megafauna” like that found 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene overkill, which would make traveling out west like a safari crossing a well populated African wildlife preserve.  Imagine tooling west on Interstate 70 and seeing elephants, tigers, lions, camels dwelling in the high grass beyond the highway fences?  If you add in Dyson’s biological experiments, and think about T. Boone Pickens’ giant windmill farms, our country is going to look very different.  When I was growing up, the future was exciting because of rocket travel.  Traveling to Mars may end up boring compared to just staying home.

I think about the recent hurricanes, Katrina and Ike, and wonder what our coastlines would be like if we could build houses that were indifferent to big waves and wind.  In my neighborhood I’m seeing hawks, raccoons and red foxes set up habitats.  I know there’s a chance that possums, coyotes and armadillos exist unseen.  It wouldn’t take much to let our lawns become urban prairies and adapt our lifestyle to allow for more wildlife, renewable energy, shifting ecologies so where we live would no longer be manicured sameness.

If we listen to Freeman Dyson, we could have all kinds of scientifically created plants and animals joining us, like shrubs that produce electricity.  How do you make such a neighborhood biosphere into a science fiction story?

On the TV at night, the news is all bad, dwelling on lost jobs, crashing stock markets, terrorism, melting glaciers, oil panics that make me worry that the future will be dim and full of drudgery.  Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, makes me think the future will be more like living in Oz.  I wonder what the mood of the country would be like if ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news programs shifted their focus from Wall Street to science laboratories around the world, would we all feel better about the future?

The public fear you see in the news is all about economics, and that’s because economists are uncertain about the future.  Reporters should spend more time interviewing scientists, who are more confident about what’s ahead.  Reading Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman made me feel a whole lot better about the next forty years because he interviewed hundreds of people with solutions, not problems.  The articles in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 aren’t gosh-wow futurism like the 1939 World’s Fair, but working class science, as real and ordinary as cloning and gene splicing.

JWH 10-11-8

Inventions Wanted 006 – The Data Bank

I’ve worked with computers for decades and backing up has always been a hassle – both at work and at home.  I used to have a tape system for home but it became impractical years ago when hard drive space far outpaced the expense of tape drive technology.  In recent times I’ve been using external USB drives, but they’re not backup paradise either.

Unless your backups are frequently taken off site there is always the problem of your house burning down, blown away by tornados, submerged in a flood, or invaded by thieves.  In the early days of personal computers valuable home data was limited to word processing files, spreadsheets and financial records.  Most of that stuff could be saved to floppies.  Now I need 63 gigabytes of space to preserve my digital valuables.

Since our parents died, my wife and I have became the librarians of family photos.  We have boxes and boxes of photos that we’re scanning to digital files.  I’ve also converted dozens of old cassette and CD audio books to MP3 files.  And I converted LPs and CDs to MP3s.  Now I have an every growing expanse of valuable binary data.

The weight of all these digital files is becoming a burden.  Last year I bought Second Copy and two USB 250gb drives.  I made a copy of my files to one drive and took it to work.  I then connected the other drive and let Second Copy replicate my hard drive activity to it in real time.  My plan was to switch drives every week so I’d always have a fresh backup off site.  I never developed the discipline to follow this plan more than a few switch outs.

So this week I subscribed to Mozy.com, an online backup service for $55 a year.  My plan was to create a Mozy backup and then restore it to a drive at work to test it out.  When I purchased Mozy I knew it was going to be slow but I had no idea how slow.  The first backup I set up with 63gb of data was predicted to take 5 weeks.  I have the third fastest DSL from AT&T.  High speed internet access is built around downloading speeds not uploading speeds which are a fraction of downloading speeds.

I called AT&T and asked about getting their fastest DSL service but they told me it wasn’t available in my neighborhood.  I even considered switching to Comcast high speed cable internet but I’m living with slow uploads for the time being.

The next thing I did was stop the current backup and cut it down to 7 gigabytes of essentials.  I was able to upload this data set in a couple of days.  At work today I ran the restore to test things out.  Mozy.com offers different ways to restore your data.  The fast way for large backups is to have them burn DVDs and express mail them to you, but this costs extra.  I used the free web restore method.  You log into Mozy, request a restore and wait for them to email you when the files are ready for downloading.  It took about an hour to be notified.

Mozy makes one or more compressed .exe files for you to download.  I assume they divide your backup into the same DVD size chunks as they do for when they actually burn DVDs.  I got two 3gb files that I downloaded in less than an hour.  Download speeds were 1.1 – 2.2 megabits per second at work. 

I discovered that my backup had no .mp3 files in it.  I then read Mozy’s manual and discovered you can configure your backups with all kinds of filters.  The basic data set of My Documents files were set up to filter out .mp3 files because I had unchecked the Music backup set.  But I was expecting to get my audio books, which are also in .mp3 format.

In other words you will have to play around with the settings to get exactly what you want.  If you don’t have much to backup I’d just backup everything at once.  Mozy is light on documentation so I’m guessing at some of their methods.  I emailed Mozy several times and got answers, but for other things I just speculated about how to do things.  It’s easy to use, but you have to second guess them at times.

One problem with online backups is how and when to copy files.  My Second Copy program patiently waits and every ten minutes copies any newly created files to the USB drive.  That’s great as long as I don’t mind an ever growing backup because it never deletes files on the backup drive.  That’s great if you want to fetch a file you’ve accidentally deleted last week, but bad because your backup contains all those files you thought were deleted.   

Mozy works by creating backup sets.  Each set is a snapshot of the moment.  If you make a backup with Mozy one week, clean up your hard drive and reorganize your files and make another backup the next week and that backup will reflect your new system.  That doesn’t work with my USB system.  Working with the Second Copy method I’d have to wipe the folder on my USB drive and start Second Copy running fresh.

What I would like is an online backup that copies files as I make them but waits one week after I’ve deleted a file on my hard drive and then delete it off the online backup.  In other words I want backing up to be totally automatic and without backup sets.  Mozy doesn’t work that way, but the way it works is best for the technology we now have.

All this begs me to put on my wishing cap and imagine a perfect service.  What I would like is a Data Bank that protects my digital wealth the same way a normal Bank protects my money.  I want to feel totally confident that my data is always protected, maybe even with government regulations.  I’ve read horror stories about online backup companies going out of business.  Online backups is a fantastic concept.  It would be nice to know that Mozy or companies like it replicate their stores to multiple cities and I’m 99.999999999 percent sure I’ll be able to restore my files in case of a catastrophe. 

I’d also like my Data Bank to work with a standardize filing structure so I can easily find my files.  Mozy copies Windows My Documents’ structure and appears to use Vista’s new structure with my Vista machine.  Mozy is starting to support Macs and I hope they follow on with Linux.  It’s a shame that all the OSes don’t use a similar filing structure so people could learn data organizing principles.  I think it’s great that Microsoft started segregating music and photo files.  I wish the OS could tell the difference between music and audio books.

Because we can’t trust online backup companies yet, its important that you restore you files to a computer not in your house.  I did mine at work, but if that’s not possible you might want to find some backup buddies to trust.  It would be wonderful, that in the future, Data Banks do become a reality and they are guaranteed 100% trustworthy.

What I also want from the dream invention is perfect access from any computer I’m working on.  Just as I can log into my money bank from my work machine I want to be able to log into my Data Bank and have easy access to my home files.  For instance, as I rip my CD collection I’d like to copy it to my work computer to play songs there.  Or if I start a project at home on the weekend I’d like to get it out of the Data Bank on Monday.  Mozy isn’t set up like that.

I’d love to log into my Data Bank and see two folders at the root level:

/data

/library

Data would be where I go for any files I created and Library would be media files like music, photos, audio books, video, ebooks, Acrobat files, etc.  It would be very cool if the Data Bank worked like a network drive and I could just play my media files from that location.  However, I don’t know if that’s practical.  If a Data Bank had six hundred thousand customers could they handle such a load?  Maybe in the far future where everyone has fiber optics and gigabit bandwidth.  But for the near future I think causal access for backing up and retrieving should be practical now. 

Even that is beyond Mozy at the moment.  Mozy is designed to backup your files and then in an emergency restore them.  I think I’m pushing their system when I plan to backup my home system and then restore it on my work computer a couple times a year.  Since Mozy could go out of business I don’t trust them yet to hold my files without having them on a second computer.  I’m mainly using Mozy to eliminate messing with the USB drives.  That’s another source of saving electricity for those wanting greener computing, but I’m also getting tired of hearing my USB drive grind away.  Mozy should make my life simpler, and that’s good.  It will take a year or so of living with Mozy to really decide how they do.

Jim

Has Google Become King of the Spammers?

Every time I use Google, especially when I’m trying to find a product review, I’m overwhelmed with sites that are trying to sell me something.  Any word in my search term can set off a signal to bombard me with results from vendors.  I don’t mind the Adsense listings in the right column, but the paid rankings is getting out of hand.

Google seems to be invading my life even more with sales pitches when I visit blogs and web sites.  Everyone is seeing a gold rush with Adsense.  But I’ve got to wonder just how many bloggers make money using it?  It makes their pages look ugly and uninviting.  It’s one thing if you’re making a living off your site, but it’s another thing just to junk up your layout because you have get rich quick fantasies.

Spam is the word for unwanted email, but I’m now wanting to broaden its definition to include all ads.  Some web sites are looking like the hoods of race cars.  Magazines are so filled with ads that publishers practically give subscriptions away as sales catalogs.  I go to the movies and have to sit through an ever growing review of ads before the previews as well as having to overlook numerous ad placements being forced into the show.  Trucks and buses are becoming roving billboards.  I quit listening to radio years ago because of the obnoxious ads.  If I didn’t have a DVR I wouldn’t be able to watch many of my favorite shows.  Computers now come with crapware which is only a new form of advertising. 

Spam is overwhelming our lives.

Microsoft seems to be going nuts trying to find a way to compete with Google.  When is the ad boom going bust?  What we need is the HBO of search engines – but would people pay for better search results?  I’d pay $19.95 a year for a great search engine that found me what I wanted to know instead of sales pitches.

The trouble is a great non-ad search engine will be defeated if it only takes me to web pages full of ads.  How often do you end up at web pages or blogs that are honey pots that tricked you into seeing a page full of ads?

If the free Internet is going to be ad-powered I’m not sure we don’t need a new Internet.  I find most of my answers now at Wikipedia, which still uses the PBS model of financing.  Strangely enough I’ve paid for the online Encyclopedia Britannica which uses the HBO model but I prefer the results from Wikipedia.  Open source enterprises combined with subscriptions and donations could the way to go.

What I want when I go to the search engine is usually something specific.  Not only is the information I want specific, but I also have a exact idea in mind for how I want my answer formatted.  I want to buy a new HVAC, so I turned to the Internet for help.  I want How-Tos, Tutorials, Product Reviews, Consumer Reports type articles, etc.  What I would like in my dream search engine is a box for my query and a checkbox list of formats for how I want to receive the information.  For example:

  • Bibliography
  • Essay
  • Blog
  • Newspaper story
  • Encyclopedia entry
  • Definition
  • Photograph
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Travelogue
  • Lesson
  • Tutorial
  • Book
  • Journal
  • Magazine article
  • Peer-reviewed academic journal
  • Product Review
  • Comparison shopping grid
  • Sale offers

And so on.  Sure, sometimes I do want to find a place to shop.  Most of the time I don’t.  Using Google now is like visiting a poor country and stepping off the plane to be mobbed by hundreds of hucksters and beggars.  And as long as Google is free this is how it’s going to be.  They have to make money to pay their overhead.  Can’t blame them on that.  But, I’m sick of ad-generated enterprises.

I’m not expecting a free lunch, but that’s what people have come to expect from the Internet.  I think the businesses and advertising firms of the world need to think of ways to market their wares other than buckshot spamming.  I know the current system is working for them and I tend to think most people accept things the way they are, so change is unlikely.  I believe we have a whole generation of people used to being walking billboards with their clothing, and they have lived and breathed advertising their whole life and can’t think of anything different.

I’m not against shopping.  I’m not against technology helping me find things to buy.  I am tired of spamming, and I believe the world of advertising has become spammers.  Google has succeeded magnificently in this method, so everyone is following them.

Recently I started researching social networking and found tons of sites about how to increase ranking or visitors.  Everyone wants to manipulate Digg.com to increase their traffic and thus their ad revenues.  In fact, some of the sites with the largest traffic are those that teach people how to generate large traffic – in other words, the Internet is becoming a giant pyramid scheme.  Hordes flock to the Internet to make their fortunes only to learn that to make money requires getting other people to flock to their sites.

Google has unwittingly become the tool of this madness.  Digg.com offers one method to overcome Google’s Achilles heel but only if you’re looking for what’s popular on the net at the moment.  Ad driven sites are now trying to find ways to manipulate Digg.com.

During the early years of the World Wide Web it was promoted as a super Library.  Mixed in with all those billions of current pages are ones that offer genuine information, the kind of data you go to a library to find.  Wikipedia has become the shining light that draws people seeking knowledge.  What we need is other information enterprises that are like Wikipedia and Digg.com that circumvent the ad generated gold rush.

One idea would be to create a Digg.com for long term ratings of web pages.  Google does that by measuring how many links point to particular pages, but I assume this feature is overridden by paid rankings.  Google could offer a non-ad version for a fee if they wanted and even combine Digg.com voting.  The early form of Yahoo was based around a subject tree index of human reviewed web sites.  That worked when the Internet was smaller.  It might work again to make the Internet seem smaller and manageable by filtering out the noise.

I tend to think all gold rushes, like this ad generated one, eventually go bust.  Pages will start disappearing when ad revenues don’t grow.  Super sites will consolidate services.  I think blogs will evolve and like personal web pages before the blogging era, will lose their appeal to most people.  Blogging will succeed as a form of personal communication but I don’t think many people will ever make money at it. 

Jim

   

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