Kindle Fire: up in smoke?

I love my Kindle with a passion. In less than a year I’ve got whole libraries on there; I get The Economist delivered to it; I’ve put a library of classics referenced by historical era and geographical origin on it that I’m sure I’ll get round to reading someday.

But I won’t be buying a Kindle Fire. And usability expert Jakob Nielsen has put his finger on why.

The Fire is a tablet, not an e-reader. It’s a computer, a general-purpose device. And any jack-of-all-trades instantly loses the stuff that makes it special, just as a camel is a racehorse designed by committee.

With my bog-standard Kindle, it’s some gestalt of the e-ink display (no backlight, just like paper) and the few bars and buttons (they turn a page, do nothing else); it feels like a book, reproducing the experience of reading without the silly (Hi, Apple!) cheese-graphics of wood-grained bookshelves and leather-stitched edging. Just as 80s-era text adventures gave you the feel of wandering around Zork without a graphic ever being needed, a Kindle celebrates the book by not trying too hard to be one. It’s a bluesman, not a cheesy tribute band.

And yet, of course, I’m tempted. I like hi-res colour screens more than most people (I run a full 2880 x 1800 on the Windows partition of my Mac.) And the Kindle Fire is new, always appealing to a techhead. But I’m older and wiser about these things today, because…

… I’ve been here before.

About a decade ago, seduced by a colour screen and animated apps, I traded my PalmPilot for an IPAQ. (Remember them?) At first I was excited by the colour screen and a version of Windows that fitted in my pocket (sort of); something that could run Word and Excel as well as keep my calendar.

The excitement lasted all of two days. It wasn’t even a week before I started missing my Palm.

The Zen-like simplicity of the Palm 5 (the last one I owned) was what the IPAQ – and today, the Fire – is missing. The Palm really fitted in your pocket, and didn’t even weigh you down. The battery lasted for weeks. The black-and-white screen and crisp text just worked. It had that essential subset of functions you needed each day with the option to add more only as you wanted them. No palmtop or phone has ever been as useful as my little Palm, and I miss it even today.

The Zen of e-reading is the same, as long as you stick to the e-readers. Don’t ever assume reading a novel on an iPad or Fire is going to be the same experience: they’re heavier, more complex, and backlit, more tiring on the eye than any e-ink page and not like a book.

To be honest, I’m not sure how big I am on the whole tablet phenomenon to start with; I’m a content creator, whereas most people are content consumers, and pads are for consuming.

And there’s the rub. Seduced by the splash of colour, pads and tablets may well kill off e-readers: not much room for a specialist in a world of good-enough generalists. The Kindle phenomenon won’t go away, but reading books on a backlit screen with fixed pagination just isn’t going to be the same; if it was, all books today would be published in PDF. e-ink companies are already having problems; electronic paper just isn’t glamorous enough for a world that doesn’t read much. But I’m not making the same mistake I did a decade back.

I’ll keep on loving my Kindle, and may well be loving it long after the technology is obsolete.

“Looper”: sheer loopiness

And this week’s Sneak-Out Wednesdays movie is… Looper!

For the first 30 minutes, I honestly thought it was a turkey. It commits that laziest of all directorial sins: the narrative track that explains the film for those in the audience who shouldn’t really be let out unsupervised. (“I’m too untalented to show you, so I’m going to read it out instead.”) It probably came from a focus group rather than the Director’s hand, but it’s intensely annoying nonetheless.

Fortunately, after the first half hour the director gets the upper hand over the focus group again (there’s definitely going to be a Director’s Cut) and it turns into this amazing piece of art. Tarantino on his best day would have trouble getting close.

I didn’t come with high expectations. Time travel films annoy me, travelling the arrow backwards being one of the few things that’s really impossible. But let’s face it, a world where Bruce Willis speaks French and Mandarin is already pushing the disbelief scale skywards…. and the subgenre’s so full of hackneyed cliches I didn’t think there’d be much creativity here.

But somehow Rian Johnson pulls some real characters out of the Kansas canesugar. It’s believable how a young runaway might grow up into a jobbing assassin trained to kill without motive or reason and think himself the Man for doing it. There are the right motives for jumping into a time machine when you’ve got a chance to escape. The whole narrative is well-constructed and pretty coherent within its own frame of reference. (Although I’d have taken a gun back with me, Bruce.)

The way Joseph Gordon-Levitt presumably trained for days (possibly fixed in post) to get just the look of a young Bruce Willis in his eyes for one of the film’s opening sequences … the way his older self might still find the killer within him unreconstructed after all… I’m not giving anything away here; this much is in the trailer and voiceover. But there’s a couple of not-quite-foreseeable plot twists – and I left the cinema happy. 8/10, Rian Johnson.

SNS Special Alert: Long Live Science

Mark Anderson of the SNS Newsletter has used the successful MSL landing to skycrane this poignant piece into the rarified atmosphere of public science awareness. It’s aimed at a US audience, but with religionists and public sector workers – and worse, those who misguidedly pander to their reality distortion fields – on the march in the UK too, it has relevance here too. Here it is in full.

To All SNS Members:

Many of you have already written in asking for permission to re-distribute this piece.  Please feel free to distribute to as many people and publications as you wish, with the caveat that it be complete, and have attribution.  I hope it does good in larger circles – and thank you for your willingness to do so. – mra.

To Our Members:

As you are no doubt aware, at 1:38 a.m. this morning, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech succeeded in landing a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.  This effort required years of scientific, technical and engineering preparation, resulting in a novel multi-stage process for getting heavy equipment onto the red planet, rife with steps which, if any failed, would likely cause mission failure.

The landing occurred without a single problem, including minutes during the critical last phases of the flight when the spacecraft was out of communications with Earth and ran autonomously.

While this effort will no doubt have a great impact in improving our knowledge of the Mars geology and surface, including habitability for future human missions, and perhaps information on past life in the targeted crater, there is a deeper meaning to this effort:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not “believe in” science (i.e., objectively provable reality) – or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu – NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents, and today, of the planet itself.

Any person or party which mocks science should be considered for what he or it is: a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox (Not) News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity.  Ignorance is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge.

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result several times, demonstrated an objective truth.  Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another addition to human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted.  This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome.

I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface.  We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country which threatens scientific endeavor, and the acceptance of scientific findings.

Our thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science.  In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Here is the video:

<http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=149948191>

Long live Science.
Sincerely,

Mark Anderson
CEO, Strategic News Service

The Slow People

Sunshine smiles over a spring-infused London, and the West End is warm and bright for the first time this year. I wander the streets freely, buying a T-shirt here, an Americano there; I am satisfied with life. But one thing mars this perfect scene.

A writhing, weaving, suffocating mass of organic matter infests the ancient streets of our capital. Like a Wellsian red weed, they enfold and engulf the cityscape, living prophylactics reducing its diverse qualities to a generic mulch.

I call them The Slow People.

They are everywhere. Moving with all the pace and alacrity of a Jamaican snail with some heavy shopping. When there’s clear paving ahead, they stay Slow, never seizing the opportunity to be Fast. When the crossing man lights up green, they hesitate. Often, groups of Slow People stop dead to engage in discussions concerning  matters pertaining to Slowness, preventing decent citizens from progressing. Families composed of Slow People tend to walk four abreast, blocking entire sections of pavement and turning Saturday’s vitality into mere Throng.

What defines The Slow People? Simply: they DO NOT WALK FAST ENOUGH. Their pace befits a Sunday ramble, not the world’s premier city. They move among us, but they do not belong with us.

Slow People come in all shapes and sizes; no group stands out. The old and infirm are excused my reasoned scorn; their membership of this group was not their choice. But the obese are not. Obesity, after all, is Your Own Problem. And while not all Slow People are fatties, all fatties are Slow People.

What’s wrong with these people? Exchanging two burgers for one bowl of green leaves three or four days a week is not a huge hardship; it costs nothing and will extend your life. (The developing world must look with bemusement at the number of TV shows in the UK about… people who are sad about having too much to eat.) 

Yet Slowness is not due to biology. Plenty of septugenarians and up traverse the streets with a sprightly gait and intelligence shining from their eyes; obviously their attitudes remain young. Being a Slow Person is in the mind.

And Slow People, of course, tend to breed Slow Children. The phenotype of being a lard-assed salad-dodging gut-bucket is, sadly, a persistent pattern in the modern industrialised world; but even among those of a healthy BMI there are plenty of Slow People. You see Slowness emerging in the limbs of their children; an ambling slouch without purpose or direction, like seaborne organisms doomed to a life of chance encounters with plankton, incapable of independent locomotion. Slow People cannot forge any distinctive path in life; they merely allow life to carry them along.

The Slow People are not going away. They may, in fact, get Slower.

They are The Slow People.

News of the World to close on Sunday

So what are we to make of it? Perhaps – just perhaps – that lynch mob justice works.

The News of the World, with its phone-hacking shenanigans, is to close on Sunday, and not a day too soon. Newspapers tapping phones, buying information from cops, and politicians too scared to do anything about it. Parliament, most of whose 651 members have been put on the rack by this newspaper at some point, has been in spluttering uproar for days… perhaps sensing blood, and that the time was right to give some of it back.

I think this story, ultimately, was about one thing. Journalists are great at dishing out the dirt on people… but very poor at taking it. Unable to accept their methods weren’t in anyone’s interest but theirs, phone-hacking became an accepted technique, unquestioned by the people doing it. It’s an attitude shared by many in newsrooms: I still remember my surprise when a letter written to the Daily Mail many, many years ago brought not an acceptance or rejection, but a personal note from the newspaper’s editor telling me (scoldingly) how wrong I was.

Has mob justice, for once, worked? This didn’t need a law change; phone hacking is illegal. It didn’t need new penalties; those for interfering with a crime scene (arguably the case if a kidnapped girl’s mobile phone messages have been deleted) are already severe. It’s notable that without public outrage nothing would have happened here. Look back at the scandal, and look at the cross-connections. Police strangely reluctant to investigate? Well, a fair few of them were making a nice little income selling confidential information to journalists. Politicians without a taste for looking deeper? All of them scared they’d be investigated by Murdoch’s titles. We’ve got institutional breakdown here.

What is clear is just what a couple of tough bastards Mssrs. Murdoch and Brooks are. (As if we needed further proof.) No sentimentality: when they saw the scandal was engulfing an arm of their business to a degree it’d never recover from, they shut it down. One of the UK’s biggest-circulating and most profitable newspapers. They shrugged and tied a tourniquet on its bloody stump. That’s what it takes to succeed in business at this level: a will and resolve shared by very, very few.