The Problems with DRM Free Audio Books

[Update 12/26/9:  Newer MP3 players have come a long way since I wrote this post below.  Many now support resume and/or bookmarks on plain MP3 files, making them excellent choices for playing audiobooks.]

DRM (digital rights management also called copy protection) has been a big topic among music fans for years.  It’s the software that tries to keep users from illegally copying songs from iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster and other download services.  The same technology is used  for audio books that come from download sites like Audible.com, iTunes and AudioBookStandDL.com and library services like Overdrive and NetLibrary.  Audio books that come on regular CDs can be ripped just like music CDs to make MP3 files.  MP3 files are the lowest common denominator of sound files and do not have DRM attached to them.  In some cases like library checkout software OverDrive and NetLibrary, DRM can not be removed for obvious reasons. 

In the past year the big music publishers have moved away from using copy protection, allowing music buyers to have their music unencumbered by DRM.  Now audio book publishers are starting to free downloadable audio books from the same chains.  This gives users easy-to-manage MP3 files to own – but at a cost.  MP3 files are not the best format to listen to digital audio books – unless the player is programmed with features for the audio book listener.

All things being equal people will want DRM free files but until all the producers of MP3 players get onboard with making their players audio book friendly you might find such files an aggravation to use.  The key is to find the right player.  Most iPods work well as audio books, but there is a vast array of other players competing with Apple that are cheaper and potentially better products.  If you buy a Creative Labs, Sandisk, iRiver, Samsung, Cowon, etc., player you need to make sure it will work with MP3 audio books.

Right now audio books purchased from Audible.com, iTunes, and sites using the OverDrive technology come with DRM encased files, but they are also customized to handle certain features you need to enjoy playing audio books.

Resume and Bookmarks

MP3 audio books are different from music even though they are stored in the same file format.  Audio books can run many hours in length and users want to remember their place whenever they stop listening.  The MP3 file format has no built-in feature to do that.  Files from Audible.com are stored in a format that works with specific digital players that automatically remember the user’s stopping place, plus they are designed to also remember bookmarks with some players.  Those features need to be required of all MP3 audio book players.

Many MP3 players have been designed with a resume feature – that is, the player will start up on the file you left off playing last.  But if you are listening to a book, switch to listening to music, and return to the book you will have lost your place.  Some MP3 players have a bookmarking feature.  This is usually a menu choice that sets a return-to-point in the file to help you find your way back.  It’s not the same as resume.  Audible.com files have multiple-resumes and with some players bookmarks. 

Users of iPods can set their MP3 files up in iTunes so they will have multiple-resumes which makes that player among the best for audio book listening.  However, iPods are expensive and it would be easier on the user if multiple-resume was built into the player itself.

Multiple-resume feature means if you have five audio books and you switch between them the player remembers wherever you left off in each book.  This is the gold standard for audio book listeners.  Single resume is the feature that allows you to pick up where you left off on the last file played.  This is the minimum feature needed to play audio books without a great deal of aggravation.  Imagine trying to find your place every time you return to your book when it’s twenty hours long and has no pages numbers.

A bookmarking feature is a system that allows users to manually tag one or more places in a single audio book, and its a big plus, especially if you want to study or review a book and want return to specific passages.  It also allows the user to remember her place if the player does not have resume.

Plain MP3 files have no notion of resume or bookmarks – they are an add-on features to the player you buy, so it’s important to buy the right player.  If audio book publishers standardize on the MP3 file format without DRM, then digital audio player manufacturers need to catch up.  Apple does the job in software, and users must make the settings in iTunes before they copy their files to their iPods.  Other players handles things differently.

There are car CD players that will remember the user’s place when they turn off their car.  Such hardware resume control should be added to all portable MP3 players.  In fact, the hardware should support resume on every file and not the last played.  And if the manufacturer really wants to endear themselves with audio bookworms they should build in bookmarking.  Some players do this but it’s hard to find out if a particular model has these features because new models don’t always follow the standards of previous models.  Below is a couple recent links that can help.

File Size and Number

I’ve seen audio books as long as 80 hours.  A typical 15 hour book can be one 300 megabyte MP3 file or ten 30 megabyte files or even 200 small files, depending on how the seller breaks them up.  Audible.com tends to break books up in 7-8 hour chunks.  eMusic.com sells their MP3 audio books in a collection of many small files.  They do that because they know people do not always have resume or bookmarks and expect people to remember what track they left off on.  That also encourages people to finish a track before stopping.  This is a very poor way to listen to audio books.

If you rip a CD audio book or buy an audio book from eMusic the best thing to do is merge the tracks into fewer larger files.  This makes managing your book much easier.  If all players had multiple-resume I doubt booksellers would market audio books with 200 tracks.  When I rip a CD book of 15 CDs I make it into 15 tracks, rather than 150-200.  But I’d rather have the book in 2 parts like Audible.com and iTunes sell.

I use CDex to rip CDs with multiple tracks into a single file, but iTunes can do it too.  MP3Merge is the utility I use to merge MP3 files into bigger files when I buy a book that comes with lots of parts.  This is also useful to merge podcasts – because many sites like to make their longer downloads as a series of files.  With MP3Merge you can put them back together into one file, which is easier to manage in your library.

One reason why publishers want to give up DRM on audio books is the hassle they face with supporting players.  If they make their audio book plain MP3 files then the hassle of support is up to you, the user.  Selling the books as MP3 files with multiple tracks is marketing the book to work on the widest possible range of players.  Anything that can play a MP3 file can play the book.  That doesn’t mean the book will be easy to use.

It does mean people can go buy cheap $25 MP3 players and start listening to audio books on the go.  The cheapest current players tend to offer 1 gigabyte of space with no display.  The best way to listen to an audio book on such a device is to load it with one large file and expect it to have resume.  Thus it becomes a single-function device – an audio book – you turn it on, listen for awhile, shut it off, turn it back on and start where you left off.  When you’re finished you delete the book and load another.

If you get an audio book from eMusic.com and it comes as 200 files and you’re trying to manage them on a player with no display and you lose your place, you’re going to get very pissed off.  Another reason why publishers are now wanting to abandon DRM is because they want to sell audio books outside of iTunes/Audible because they know that most people have iPods and this would allow more audio book merchants to compete with Apple.

PC versus Mac

The PC-Mac dichotomy spreads over the digital audio player world.  Microsoft promoted its DRM and non-iPod MP3 manufacturers followed behind their lead.  If a publisher supported Microsoft’s DRM then that book wouldn’t play on an iPod because Apple uses a different DRM.  Many people can check out digital audio books from their libraries through the Overdrive or NetLibrary systems.  These systems use the PlayForSure DRM designed by Microsoft.  People with iPods go to their library and are told they can’t participate.  Conversely, people with Creative, Sandisk, iRiver and other players go to iTunes to buy songs and books, and they are told, sorry, but you don’t count.

This is why publishers want to abandon DRM.  They may have to deal with pirates, but they don’t offend their users or handhold them while supporting numerous devices.  This is a good things, except like I’ve been talking about above, plain MP3 files aren’t ready for prime time audio book listening.

Right now I’m sticking with Audible.com and its DRM system.  Audible.com has made deals with many hardware companies, including Apple.  Some players will even work with Audible and OverDrive/NetLibrary.  Because they also play plain MP3 files too, they will work with DRM free files.  Audible.com is also the cheapest way to buy audio books, but Audible.com sells DRM files.

Amazon, now that it has bought Audible.com, may change things because they are in the DRM-free music business.  They may make buying digital audio books a breeze, but without Audible.com’s extra effort to make digital audio books practical, I’m not sure if Amazon will improve things.  If they do end up selling DRM-free audio book downloads, lets hope they promote the best players to use for listening to these books and use their clout to get all DAP (digital audio player) makers to support audio books.

Digital Media Libraries

Ultimately we do not want to mess with ripping CDs or merging files.  We want to just buy a digital audio book and download it.  From there we will have two options.  Some people like having a media library program like iTunes or Windows Media Player to manage all their files and other users like to store their files in folders they control.  MP3 works with either option so that should make most people happy.  Some DAP players only work with a media library to transfer files to the player’s drive, other DAP players work like flash drives and you can just drag and drop books onto them.

I tend to think the majority of people will want a media librarian.  Such library software can track songs, audio books, podcasts, videos, photos, etc.  However, libraries break down when the user gets too many files, but I expect that will be fixed by Apple and Microsoft in the future.  I would like to advocate that a file structure be designed to work across platforms and design them so any media librarian can use that structure without altering it.  That way you can switch librarians as the years progress without screwing up your file folder of songs, books, photos, podcasts and videos.  But this might be too much pie in the sky idealism.  Imagine:

\Library

      \AudioBooks

           \Author1

                 \BookTitle1

                 \BookTitle2

      \eBooks

      \Music

            \Artist1

                 \AlbumTitle1

                 \AlbumTitle2

      \Photos

      \Podcasts

      \Videos

Another reason to desire standard folder structures for media is the emerging wireless media servers.  These devices allow you to play songs, books, videos and photos on your big screen TV in another room, or channel sound to a bedroom stereo system.  Companies like Sonos even make remotes that allow users to select what they want to hear and play it in any part of the house without being at a computer.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a system near the bed and tell your computer to play a book and set it with a sleep timer?  Standardizing on DRM free files and standard folder structures for storing those files help these media servers. 

Right now you buy a media server to match a particular system and DRM, like iTunes or Windows Media, but they try to be as compatible as possible.  My RoKu SoundBridge can get DRM songs from Rhapsody and its folders, and DRM-free iTune songs from the iTunes folder, and songs from my Windows Media folder.  It’s a pain in the ass to try to remember where I put a song though.  Did I get it from iTunes or Rhapsody?  See why I want a standard folder structure?

For now we must campaign and even protest to get DAP makers to delivery on multiple-resume and bookmarking features for us bookworms.  We can work on media servers later.

Jim

Update #1: I’ve heard back from several online friends and there is no consensus as to which player to recommend. The Cowon and Creative Zen Plus were both mentioned. All I can recommend is the iPod with a screen. I don’t recommend the Shuffle for audio books.

Update #2: OverDrive announces it will sell DRM free audio books to consumers. This is huge. Digital audio players (DAPs) and audio books are changing the way people read books. OverDrive’s is advertising their MP3 files will play on virtually any DAP, including the iPod, Zune, Creative Labs and smart phone devices.

Angels in the Movies

Although I’m a lifelong atheist, I love movies about angels.  Last night I saw a humdinger of an angel movie, Angel-A, a French film by Luc Besson, the guy who gave us The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Le Femme NikitaAngel-A is a stunningly beautiful black and white film set in Paris.  The cinematography is superb, so even if you don’t like watching foreign films because you have to read the subtitles, this one is worth just watching for the imagery.  You could skip the words and still love this movie.

200px-Angel-A_Poster

André, a French-Arab-American, played by Jamel Debbouze, is a low-life hustler on the run from several mobsters who have all sworn they will kill him before the day is over.  André decides to beat his enemies to the punch and jump into the Seine, but before he can, Angela, played by a strikingly tall blonde Rie Rasmussen, jumps in before him, so André rescues her instead of doing himself in.  Angela follows in the footsteps of Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Clarence tricked George Bailey into saving him, and likewise, Angela tricks André into saving her.  I wonder if Besson is paying homage to Frank Capra?

Angela isn’t your typical angel, she lies, she uses the F-word, she smokes and drinks, but she is on an apparently heavenly assignment to save André from himself.  As angel pictures go, this one has a rather simple message:  tell the truth.  Of course the conflict of the story, for André and Angela both, is seeing the truth.

Angel movies are always about teaching humans to understand the truth within.  Variations of the standard angel movie deal with angels making their own personal discoveries, like in this film and Wings of Desire/City of Angels.

Unless you know much about angels you would do well to read the Wikipedia article on them because there is a whole angelology behind these spiritual beings.  Ultimately, angels are great story devices.  To some, angels are beings much different from humans, and to others, angels are those people who have died and earned their wings in heaven.  There is also a weird variant of the second type where angels are beings waiting to be born as humans on Earth.  In each case, there are rules to follow.  Angela in Angel-A appears to be non-human and not a deceased soul, but the issue is clouded by her lies.

Tradition has it that angels are without gender and are given male names, but Angela is very definitely female.  Biblical angels were messengers of God, but movie angels tend to work as guardians of humans, although the angel of death is sometimes personified as a human, as in Death Takes a Holiday or On Borrowed Time – the later is one of my all time favorite angel flick where Death is called Mr. Brink.

Many angels, like those in A Guy Name Joe, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and It’s a Wonderful Life, work for a spiritual agency that is structured almost like the military and angels have rank.  Angela hints that she is working for such an organization and must follow rules.

This is a fascinating concept, although one I find creepy.  The idea that an organization of angels watches our every move can be embarrassing when you think about what they are seeing at times in our lives.  I think people like angel stories because people really want a personal God, but it’s hard to imagine one supreme being paying so much attention to every human.  It is easier to think that an angel with god-like powers could take a personal interest in how we live because it’s easier to imagine a large enough flock of angels so everyone gets to have their own personal guardian.  Also, it’s much easier to imagine hanging out with an angel than hanging out with God.

The trouble with angels and stories about angels is limiting their power.  Angela goes through some seemingly un-angelic behavior to help André earn money when we later learn she has the power to solve problems much more quickly.  And I had to wonder why the other low-life inhabitants of Paris don’t have their own angels to protect them.  Why is André getting divine intervention in his life?

When Dudley helps David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife does that mean the Bishop lacks the inner qualities to succeed?  Do the Angelas, Clarences, and Dudleys represent cheaters in the school of hard knocks for humans?  Bartleby and Loki in Dogma represent two angels with their own problems trying to beat the system.  Kevin Smith sets up the rules for Dogma early on and that helps make the picture better.  I think Angela-A would have been improved if we had learned the rules early on too.

Angela-A succeeds with me because of the stunning monochromatic photography and the fact that Angela and André are flawed but extremely likable characters.  We love Angela like we do the angel Michael in Michael because of their all too human attributes.  Like Michael says, “I’m an angel, not a saint.”

That’s the funny thing about angel pictures.  The more angels succeed at making humans perfect, the more we like angels imperfect, like us.

JWH

What Motivates Science Fiction Fantasies?

Awhile back I wrote “What is Your Science Fiction Fantasy?” and I had a couple long and well thought out replies from my blogger friend Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings that make me want to return to this subject.  I’ve been a life-long science fiction fan, and my adolescence was filled with fantasies of two types.  Like most guys that age, the majority of my waking thoughts back then were about sex, but between the constants T&A flicks playing in my brain I’d project fantasies about rockets and space travel.  I loved science fiction books, movies, and television shows.  I grew up thinking when I got older I’d have sex with lots of women and I’d be an astronaut. 

As you might have guessed, things didn’t work out quite like I planned.  We live in at least three worlds.  The first is the unseen world of microbiology and its programming.  The second is the actual reality where our bodies dwell.  And third is the fantasy world of our minds where we constantly reshape reality.  Most of the fantasies worlds we build are unconsciously inspired by the unseen biological world that lives inside us.  We seldom examine its motivations.

I know why I had the teenage sex fantasies and where they came from.  At the cellular level I am programmed to reproduce and the reptilian and mammalian parts of my brain did everything they could to keep me focused on the target of passing on my DNA.  Every story about boy meets girl is our cells instructing us on how to make babies.

It’s rather hilarious, don’t you think, that the porn industry makes its billions by triggering the baby making response in males?  Yeah brothers, the next time you have your hand on the joystick and you’re self-hypnotizing your mind with delicious sexual desires by drooling over images of female body parts just remember what 13.75 billion years of evolution is trying to trick you into doing.

Now ladies, don’t think y’alls lot in life is any more dignified.  Guys may be slobbering monkeys playing with themselves, but women are the ones painting their faces, contorting their bodies to protrude in suggestive monkey appealing ways while acting like robotic slaves to appearance and competitive fashion.  Not only that, but Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice can turn you into a swooning puddle of quivering romance.  Sure in your eyes Colin is Mr. Right, but go reread the paragraph above and remember what Mr. Firth sees in his eyes.  

Now you might not believe what I’m saying, but you can at least see the possible connection between the plots of most novels and biology.  So where the hell did all those spaceship fantasies come from?  Is there some deep urge to explore that exists in our genetic structure?  Maybe my lower brain functions wanted me to be an astronaut after my neo-cortex told them that fly-boys got all the chicks.  Porn and romance books make sense but what’s the logic of science fiction?

In my youth I justified my interest in trashy science fiction books by telling adults I was preparing for the future.  As I got older I worried I was just reading SF to avoid growing up.  When it was obvious my Heinlein training wasn’t going to pay off I felt that college years were meant for having fun before I was sentenced to the 9 to 5.  Then I told myself that all those silly outer-space dreams were just as realistic as all those sex dreams were turning out to be.  I wasn’t making babies or riding in rockets.

I ended up believing that fiction and fantasy was just entertaining diversions for when I had free moments from living and working.  I concluded that art, fiction, stories, fantasies, were meaningless expressions of creativity.

Now that I’m older, I’m re-evaluating that.  Could it be that our sense of wonder dreams are telling us something?  Carl doesn’t like how I keep referring to entertainment as escapism:

Now I’m not naive enough to ignore the fact that there is some degree of escapism in watching films and reading. I don’t believe there is any way to ever get totally away from that. But I think there is a fine line between escapism and entertainment and I firmly believe that if you read something and it stays with you and you are thinking about it and mulling it over and it somehow inspires you, lifts your mood, etc. then it is making a positive contribution to your life. ‘Escapism’ as a term seems to bring up only images of negative stuff.

I tend to use escapism as a synonym for entertainment, so that’s getting me into trouble.  I do this because I see entertainment as a vacation from work.  But what if our entertainment desires represent a positive drive like sex?  Out of all the zillions of species on planet Earth we’re the only ones with these Buck Rogers dreams.  Sure, we could tie them to biology and say they are just our territorial genes on steroids.  Is the human impulse to build skyscrapers really that different from ants building mounds?  There seems to be no natural analog for the SF drive.

Carl’s science fiction fantasy is to be a hero like Hans Solo:

Also I love the whole hero thing. We all want to be heroes, as husbands, fathers, friends. I’m attracted to Han Solo because he represents what I think so many guys are and want to be…we are by nature somewhat independent and yet at heart we crave a few good, close, intimate friends and the love of a good woman who is our equal, not a damsel in distress. I look at my own personal life and I believe I have that. My wife is every bit the person I see in so many of the romantic movie and book roles I love.

This goes a long way to explain why entertainment fantasies are positive driving forces in our lives.  My formative SF fantasies came from the Robert A. Heinlein’s young adult novels from the 1950s.  Instead of wanting to be a Joseph Campbell hero like Carl, those books made me want to be an explorer or pioneer, and my fantasy was to grow up and join a team that colonized Mars.  And long after it was obvious I was never going to live my fantasy I’ve wanted the same fantasy for the human race by supporting the space program.

The word “escapism” does seem negative, and in some contexts so does the word “fantasy.”  We come home from a hard day at the rat race and read John Scalzi’s latest or put on a DVD of Aliens, or play Halo on the Xbox, and tune out this world.  Is that a negative or a positive?  We could be doing something more constructive – I’m sure our wives think so.  Is the act of communing with our science fiction selves telling us something?

Most fiction involves stories about this world with slight variations.  In fact, most stories are a variation of boy meets girl which is only an elaboration of the plain old sex fantasy.  Other movies, like action pics are expressions of alpha male fantasies.  Chick flicks show the inner motivations of females.  Our entertainment reflects our biological programming.  Again, I’m back asking where do these science fiction fantasies fit into biology?

Is this SF drive greater than our biology?  Think about the big bang.  It was a big explosion of energy that shoots out in all directions.  After that for reasons hard to understand this energy reorganizes itself into matter that forms stars and planets.  Visualize blowing up a building and then watching as the rubble reassembles into something new.  That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it.

After the planets were formed by bits of rock clumping together we eventually get biology.  Talk about an infinite army of monkeys typing away and to produce the works of Shakespeare.  Is it any wonder that some religious people came up with the idea of intelligent design?  Cosmologists are now explaining this odd drive to complexity by saying we live in a multiverse – an infinity of universes and we just happen to live in a universe that has accidentally acquired this organizing drive.  They imagine most universes with big bangs that produce an entropy of particle haze.

Life represents replicating organisms.  What is the purpose of all this reproduction?  Humans have developed a rather peculiar side-effect:  self-awareness.  I think science fiction is aptly named.  As science has expanded our awareness of the universe, science fiction has programmed us with motivation to explore it.

If you look at porn and forget why it excites you then you are in animal mode.  If you watch Pride and Prejudice and forget why its pushing your buttons you are sleep walking.  If the latest science fiction novel electrifies your sense of wonder and you don’t under stand why, you’re a robot without AI.

I return to Heinlein over and over again, and Carl knows the foundation of his psychic world is Star Wars, but do we know why this art we admire so much is pushing our buttons?  Sex is the most powerful motivating force for humans behind survival, but we forget how it influences our art and culture.  Has the academic world every psychoanalyzed the motivating power of science fiction?  I do not have any answers.  I am just now forming the question.

Jim

R.I.P. – The Good Ole Days

Let me start out by saying I don’t want this essay to be doom and gloom.  Also let me just remind you about the Yin and Yang nature of the world.  Creation also means something gets destroyed.  Old folks are always crying about how things aren’t the way they were when they were growing up at the same time the young’uns run wild, gleeful embracing every new fad coming down the expressway.  I’m a glass half-full kind of guy who enjoys wearing rose colored specs while examining the philosophies of those dark clouded guys proposing the half-empty theories.

As I mentioned previously, I’m listening to The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen.  I just finished his eulogy for the music store and I just can’t help tossing out my two pennies worth of monkey typing.  I know most bloggers pretend to barf when they hear the name Andrew Keen, but I actually think his book should be read by everyone.  He’s done much cogitating and turned up a lot of ideas to think about.  Only I’m not sure I’m thinking about his vital issues in the same way he does.

When Keen started lamenting the demise of the record store I was reminded how I used to love record shopping.  From 1965 through 1998 I bought a damn lot of LPs and CDs.  I averaged buying two to four albums while shopping in two or more records stores each week.  I loved record stores.  Hell, it was a stab to the heart when LPs disappeared, with their great 12″ venues for fantastic cover art.  To me the good ole days of record stores was from 1965-1975 – from Byrds to Bruce.  Okay I do love those little dinky little CD albums, but never as much as the big beautiful LPs.

Now Andrew Keen wants us to believe that the Internet is murdering the music business.  And that is true for the old way of business.  I believe stealing music is stealing, and P2P does cause lost sales.  However, I’m not sure that music thieves are the only suspect holding a smoking MAC-10.  I never stole music when it became a fad, but around 1998 I stopped buying CDs by the handful – so I’m sure my kind hurt the industry too.  I don’t know how many baby boomers are like me but the damn music industry just stopped selling music I wanted to own.

There are other factors.  I’d say part of the music boom of the 1980s and early 1990s was us old guys re-buying all our favorite LPs on CDs, as well as trying to discover everything great back to the 1910s as we got older.  As the price of CDs reached the point of kissing an Andrew Jackson good-bye I got wary of buying CDs just because of one good tune – or even no good tunes at all.  For years I kept buying all my favorite artists whenever they churned out a new CD and it took awhile to learn that great music often is created by the wild at heart – a state of being hurt by age and success.

Mr. Keen, I’d love to have the good ole record store days back again, but for me that means recreating 1965 and not 1995.  I think Andrew Keen’s ethical issues are spot on and pointing out the music industry has a long history of being unethical is no rationalization to steal by.  His theory about big music companies are the patrons of great artists and without real investment great music in the future might not get made as well, does have some merits, but that is a hard case to make.  Would I have discovered Bruce Springsteen if Columbia Records hadn’t promoted him?  I don’t know.  Would his first five albums been as fantastic if the Boss had made them on a computer as MP3 files?  I don’t think so, but I really don’t know either.

I also agree that the music business is hurting and hurting bad, but so did the buggy whip makers when people started buying cars.  And I strongly believe all those ethical issues Mr. Keen brings up regarding the Internet are happening and they are critical issues we need to work on.  But even if we fix those problems we’re not going to bring back the record store or see CD albums sell in the tens of millions.  Those good ole days are gone.

When Fleetwood Mac sold albums in the kazillions, kids didn’t have to choose between buying cell phones, $60 video games, computers, iPods and so on.  Junk food was still budgeted with pocket change and you could see a major rock band live for $7.50.  If I was in the lamenting business like Mr. Keen, and I often am, I’d wail about what happened to those days when several touring bands came to town every week.  I’m also desponded that sharing music isn’t like it used to be – see my “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?”

I’ve spent many words on crying over the dwindling subscriptions of my favorite SF magazines.  And there are numerous hobbies that are fading from existence because kids have new interests, and there are lots of Dads sad to see cherished pastimes of old ignored by their sprouts.  Things change and that’s tough.  I actually love Rhapsody.com and having millions of albums to listen to for $10 a month.  Sure, it ain’t as fun as shopping for LPs, but I can live with instant gratification.

Someday, some kid who read this blog will write a blog, but it won’t be called a blog, about how sad it is that iTunes is going out of business, and he’ll have a lot of teary feelings to try and put into words.  Maybe he will even remember reading this essay and note the kids of his time have found something exciting to move on to.  As long as there are people there’s going to be music.  The creation of a new system to promote music will always destroy the previous system.  BFD.  Move with the times or rust, because Neil told us that decades ago.  I bet there are plenty of people out there still crying over the 78 era.

I’m writing to myself as much as you Mr. Keen.  Yes, Andrew, it is a dirty rotten shame that the way we bought music is fading into our dim memories.  Sure, these young whippersnappers won’t know what their missing, but then I haven’t a clue as to what they are jamming on now.  I’m sure it’s something hot, maybe as hot as the Beatles, but I’ll never now.  That’s just the way things are.  I admit I don’t get Rap or Brittany Spears – but I assume that’s just payback for forcing my Dad to listen to rock and roll when he kept screaming for me to shut off that goddamn noise.

Mr. Keen, the good ole days are always passing.

Jim

Going Paperless 2 – Magazine Reading

I’m starting to learn just what I’ve got myself into since I had the bright idea of Going Paperless.  After I wrote that post I decided I’d focus on giving up newspapers and magazines and justified that the paper in books is different because books are meant to last and not be disposable.  Going cold turkey on buying magazines has turned out to be very hard.

I originally planned to go paperless to save on trees and the natural resources and energy that go into making paper.  I assumed digital is more environmental.  Since that time I’ve discovered other benefits to going paperless.

I buy a lot of magazines and subscribe to maybe twenty of them.  I love magazines.  I spent several years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  To me each magazine represents a subculture.  After writing my original post I’ve been to my favorite bookstores a number of times.  I linger in the magazine section looking at the issues I’d love to buy and walk away feeling disappointed, empty, even sad.  Well, I am saving some bucks too!

So far I’ve only read Time, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Reader’s Digest and Analog on my Kindle.  I’ve only subscribed to Time and just bought single issues of the others.  Amazon.com doesn’t offer that many magazines yet.  I could get The Atlantic which I currently subscribe to, and over at Fictionwise.com I could get Interzone, a SF magazine I’ve always wanted to try.

Luckily, I have about 12 feet of back issues to tide me over before going through total withdrawal.  You see, I’ve always bought far more magazines than I can read.  To be honest, I do way more flipping than actual reading – looking at photographs, cartoons, ads, reading tidbits and columns, and only sometimes getting down to reading the core articles.

Reading on the Kindle is teaching me to read differently.  The Kindle does not have photos.  Nor is it practical to just flip through the pages.  When I get out my Kindle to read a magazine it means reading – and reading only.  And that’s very different.  For casual scanning I’m going to have to use the web.

Nor do I have colorful covers, art and photography to seduce me into a particular article.  Geez, I might need to hang around the bookstore to get aroused and then run home and hope I can find that story my eyes are bulging to read.  The net has art and graphics but I can’t remember seeing a magazine site that entice me into reading a story like a magazine layout.

The latest issue of Astronomy Magazine has a stunning cover showing a bizarre image with the headline, “Is this the shape of the Universe?”  And sad to say Astronomy Magazine does not offer any freebies at their web site.  Going paperless will mean giving up this periodical.

Discover also has an eye catching cover with a lead story “Before the Big Bang: 3 Theories Explore the Backstory of Creation.”  Jumping over to the site gives no indication if I could read that article but there’s lot to read, with many entries on the same subject.  The DiscoverMagazine.com site is geared to provide reading material but it appears to have a web based structure.  It’s a busy site with lots of tiny print.  I’ll still offers lots to read after going paperless, it just won’t be easy to read.

Scientific American has a beautiful cover too that beckons me to read, “The End of Cosmology,” an article I can read online.  The SciAm.com home page is colorful, but still not as inviting as an actual issue.  SciAm also provides many full articles online, but reserves content on others.  After dumping paper I will have reading material here but not always the essay I want.

It would be great if these magazines offered a Kindle edition.  And it would be even greater if Kindle 2.0 had a nice hi-rez color screen.

There is another way to go paperless without considering the Kindle and the web, and that’s audio.  I already read 40-50 books a year via my iPod.  I can get Scientific American and The New Yorker in an abridged audio format.

Learning to read magazines with the Kindle means I need to change my buying habits.  It’s one thing to buy magazines and let them sit around on the shelf mostly unread, but it seems down right silly to buy magazines that go unread and unseen as bits and bytes on my Kindle.  To be practical I need to only buy what I can read.

Going paperless means learning to buy just the amount of words I can read on a regular basis.  Learning to do that will be difficult.  I’ve subscribed to the audio edition of The New Yorker before and like my paper copies many issues went unopened. 

Thus going paperless means changing a lot more than I previously thought.  I opened my Kindle last night and discovered I had four issues of Time queue up already.  I spent little over an hour and read many stories.  Without the photos Time really is a much different magazine.  The Kindle formatting tries to describe charts and graphs with words and that takes some imagination to see.

On the other hand I got a much better feel for the content of the magazine.  I flipped through an entire issue one screen at a time.  The Kindle tends to encourage speed reading.  There’s a delay in “flipping” pages, just enough that I still grasp some content I’m skipping past.  This causes two things to happen.  One I pick up tidbits just by flipping, and second I end up jumping back and reading stories I had planned to skip.

If I really have the guts to go paperless I’m going to have to change myself significantly.  Strangely enough going paperless might force me to focus on content and learning to read more efficiently.  I’ll end up reading more if I stick with the Kindle.  It will also force me to learn my limitations on how much I can read.

Moving away from magazines might mean spending more time reading whole non-fiction books, or watching more documentaries.  Nova (PBS) and The Universe (History Channel) have gorgeous visuals in high definition, far more stunning than magazine covers.  Magazine reading has always been the shallowest form of reading.  Ditto for newspapers.  Going paperless may also mean focusing on more substantial reading sources.

Finally, there are the Best American series of annual books that collect the best of the best periodical writing from the previous year.  These include The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best American Science Writing.  And I just got The Best of Technology Writing 2007.  I could easily give up magazine reading and just buy these volumes.  I might discover that the amount of time I spend reading non-fiction essays and articles each year might be equal to the time it takes to read a handful of annual best of anthologies.

By the way, I have thrown away a number of magazine subscription offers – some that made me want to cry because they were so cheap.  I love cheap magazine subscriptions.  That’s why I have so many magazines on my selves going unread.  Another reason going paperless is good for me.  It breaks a bad consumer habit.

Going Paperless 3

Jim   

Ordinary Life and Science Fiction

I just finished reading Marsbound by Joe Haldeman as a serial in Analog SF.  The book won’t be published until August but all parts of the serial can be found at Fictionwise.com.  I got to study with Joe Haldeman and his wife Gay for a week in 2002 when I attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, so I feel bad for making criticisms of his new novel in the narrative below.  I’m going to be critical but not in an ordinary review way – I’m going to use Marsbound as a jumping off point for talking about some general problems I have with science fiction.  Overall I found Marsbound to be a fun novel and if you read Jason Sanford’s review he reports its his favorite SF novel from recent years.

Jason also has the same reaction I had reading Marsbound because we both felt it was modeled after Robert A. Heinlein juveniles – which in my book is very ambitious.  Part of my criticism will be how this story doesn’t measure up, but that is unfair criticism too.  Joe has to write his own novels and they shouldn’t be compared to Heinlein – even though I do.  However, I think the qualities I want can’t be described as belonging to Heinlein, I just saw them first in his juvenile novels.

This essay isn’t a review.  I’ll try to avoid specific spoilers, but I will mention plot elements because they will be examples of what I want to talk about in general.  Normally I hate serials but the title Marsbound just grabbed me because I love books about colonizing Mars.  Part of my disappointed deals with the fact that the story turned out to not be about colonizing Mars.  Again, this is not the fault of Joe’s writing or the story.  Instead of being Red Planet its more like Have Space Suit-Will Travel my all time favorite SF novel.  That is both good and bad.

Let’s get down to business.  I call this essay “Ordinary Life and Science Fiction” because SF seldom deals with ordinary life and people.  Marsbound starts off being a story about a young woman of 19 who is traveling to Mars with her brother and parents.  In the future this could be about ordinary life and the beginning was very promising to my hopes.  Because Haldeman was pacing the story slow, dealing with the background of Mars exploration and explaining a space elevator I assumed Carmen Dula’s story would be a step by step narrative about what living on Mars might be like. 

This excited me because I don’t think enough science fiction deals with the reality of space travel.  Kids need to see what hard work it will be to conquer another world.  And the first installment of this story appeared to be exactly what I wanted.  Early on Carmen admits she’s a virgin and one interesting plot problem appears to be centered around romance in a limited colony.  I thought this complication was excellent.  Haldeman had done something interesting for a SF juvenile by having a female lead and dealing with sexuality and romance, topics Heinlein could not touch back in the 1950s.

Alas, Joe takes a sharp plot turn at the end of the first segment and Marsbound becomes a completely different story.  Like Have Space Suit-Will Travel, the plot is structured like a multi-staged rocket.  When the second stage kicks in Marsbound leaves the story I was hoping to read.  Again like Have Space Suit-Will Travel it takes on good and bad aliens, and eventually deals with the fate of the Earth.  All exciting stuff by traditional science fiction.

What I’d like to read is non-traditional science fiction novel.  We’re now leaving Joe Haldeman’s territory.  This is something I often do with films – fall in love with the beginning but I end up wanting to rewrite the ending myself.  I must emphasize again this can’t be consider criticism of Marsbound.

From now on I’m speculating about a new book that could be considered inspired by Marsbound.  Even one of my favorite Mars colony books, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson moves away from the details of day to day colonization and ordinary life.  SF seems to hate the mundane life.  Too often SF seems bored with any plot smaller than save the world.

When I started reading Marsbound I hoped it would be two things.  First, a detail speculation about ordinary people colonizing Mars – much like stories about colonists in early America.  Second I wanted it to be a true science fiction romance from a female’s POV.  I wanted Jane Austen meets Robert A. Heinlein.  Heinlein never could have done Austen because he didn’t have a clue about women but he was great at telling stories to youngsters about how to survive and succeed.

If mankind is to ever explore space beyond low Earth orbit we’ve got to colonize the Moon and Mars.  Such adventures will involve millions of mundane details not normally found in SF.  People who colonize these worlds will be ordinary and romance will remain a big part of their lives.  Because SF is addicted to epic plots it has trouble dealing with the minute problems people face daily.

Strangely enough Philip K. Dick attempted this in 1964 with The Martian Time-Slip when he dealt with a union on Mars and mental illness.  I think part of PKD’s success is sticking close to the little people, the ordinary person rather than writing about heroes that save the world.

I believe classic science fiction inspired rocket engineers and early space exploration but I don’t think modern science fiction has that impact on young today.  I’ve talked to a number of kids who have asked me when will space travel be like Star Wars or Star Trek.  When I reply probably never they act like I just told them Santa Claus isn’t real.  They whine that the space shuttle and NASA is boring.

Living on Mars will be a whole lot about farming and recycling – not very hip topics.  Living on Mars and the Moon will be about living underground in confined spaces.  Few people will get to hot rod on the surface.  So what will it be like to be a teenager growing up in such a limited world?  How does romance unfold when there will probably be very little privacy.  Life will be hard and kids won’t be allowed to waste hours a day on television, computers and video games.  Survival will depend on everyone pitching in.  Success will not be measured by wealth but skills and hard work, not qualities often associated with modern teen.

This is all very different from the way kids grow up today.  It should make for a great story, so why don’t we see SF books like this?  Maybe writers feel it would be too dreary to sell.  Maybe I should get off my ass and write it myself.  What’s really required is using the conventions of normal literary story telling and meld them with the details of science and science fiction.  In other words I’m asking for someone to write the great American novel set on Mars.

This is why The Road by Cormac McCarthy beats the common after-the-collapse SF novel.  McCarthy deals with the little details.  At Clarion they taught us that good fiction is the accumulation of significant details.  That’s why the Heinlein juveniles were so good and why later Heinlein adult novels are so bad.  Opinions and far out ideas are fine for blog writing, but fiction writing requires a focus on finer observations about ordinary living.  It’s nothing for me to ask for such a novel, but it’s years of work for someone to write.

I’d love to read Great Expectations or Pride and Prejudice set on Mars but with all the Martian details known by a JPL engineer.  Like I said before, if that’s something I want then maybe I should go write it myself.  But that’s even more ambitious than modeling stories after Robert A. Heinlein.

Jim

Science Fiction Short Stories 2007

I love science fiction short stories so it’s a pleasure to discover BestScienceFictionStories.com.  And yesterday Rusty posts his list of “The 10 Best Web Sites for Free Online Science Fiction Stories.”  Even though the print magazines are losing subscribers short stories are finding new venues on the web.  This site is slowly recognizing and reviewing quality short stories and helping their readers find where to read them.  What an admirable undertaking.  Now I just need to campaign to get all online publishers to create a “Send to Kindle” button.

Over at the new F&SF blog John Joseph Adams has an entry “Free Fiction Friday:  Paolo Bacigalupi” that I hope becomes a regular feature of the blog.  So far JJA has three authors listed at his Free Fiction section.   This week he links to three free stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, one of F&SF’s contributors who is making a few online waves in the past few weeks with the release of his new collection.  I have already reviewed one of the free stories in my entry “Science Fiction and Global Warming.”

Over at Black Gate Dave Truesdale provides his rather extensive list of 214 stories that he categorizes in various ways for “2007 SF & Fantasy Recommended Reading List.”  Damn, I wished I had the time to do this kind of reading.  Maybe Rusty at Best Science Fiction Stories can find links for many of these.  John Joseph Adams extracts all the F&SF stories from the list which will help me find them in my back issues.

Over at Locus Magazine they have their Recommended Reading: 2007 list – scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see their short fiction favorites.

If you are concerned about the viability of the short fiction market you may want to read “The Rise of the Genre eZine:  Will it ever find a profitable model?” over at Bloggasm by I assume Simon Owens.  He focuses on online markets, but I wished he had interviewed the print publishers about their status and their plans for co-existing in the online world.

Jason Sanford does cover the health of the print mags in “2007 SF/F magazine circulation numbers.”  It doesn’t look good.  I was worried back in 1994 when I covered the numbers in “Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories,” when I thought those numbers spelled doom, but the magazines are still surviving even with a fraction of their 1994 subscribers.  Please subscribe to a magazine!  Support the world of SF short stories.

The best stories of 2007 will be published in print in several annual best of anthologies, but they will all have 2008 in their title.  John Joseph Adams at his blog has the lineup for Rich Horton’s SF and Fantasy anthologies in Best of the Year 2008.  Over at Asimov’s forum Gardner Dozois gives us a list of stories for his The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection for 2008.  Kathryn Cramer offers a list of what will be in Year’s Best SF 13 edited by Carmer and David Hartwell.

If I had more time and energy I’d cross-tab all those best of 2007 stories to see which ones were cited the most.  If anyone is doing that please let me know.  I don’t read as much SF as I used to.  To be honest I find non-fiction about science more exciting in the years since I turned fifty.  But I still love to keep up with the SF short story field.  Strangely enough, my Kindle is getting me to read more SF.  It’s rather ironic that a science fictional looking device is getting me to read more SF, as well as reading online from a world wide network.  If I could some how tell my 1965 self who discovered science fiction short stories in little pulp magazines about how his future self would be reading SF it would be very amusing.

Jim