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.