The Strange Pricing of Digital Goods

I buy a lot of digital goods and services but I’ve noticed that there is no consistency in pricing.  For example I subscribe to Rdio.com and pay $4.99 a month for access to millions of songs and albums.  Yet, The New York Times wants $15-$35 a month for access to just one newspaper.  $60 a year for 15,000,000 songs versus $180 for 365 issues of one newspaper – can you spot the obvious bargain?

Yet for $7.99 a month, or $96 a year I get access to 75,000 movies and TV shows at Netflix.  $7.99 a month is also the price Hulu Plus charges for thousands of shows too.  So why does one newspaper cost $15 a month, especially since it was free for years.  I love reading The New York Times, but I can’t make myself pay $15 a month for it when I get so much music for $4.99 a month, and so many movies and TV shows for $7.99 a month.  If I was getting access to several great papers for $7.99 a month I’d consider it a fair deal.  But for one title, I think it should be much less.

This makes The New York Times appear to be very expensive.  However, The Wall Street Journal is $3.99 a week, or $207.48 a year. Strangely, The Economist, a weekly is $126.99 a year for print and digital, or $126.99 for just digital. Go figure.

I also get digital audio books from Audible.com.  I pay $229.50 for a 24 pack, which is $9.56 per book, but they often have sales for $7.95 and $4.95 a book.  I can get two books from Audible for what I’d pay for 30 daily papers, but I actually spend way more time listening to books than I’d spend reading the paper online. 

I subscribe to several digital magazines through the Kindle store.  Right now I’m getting a month of The New Yorker for $2.99, but that’s suppose to go up to $5.99 soon.  (What is it about stuff from New York being more expensive?)  Most of the magazines I get from Amazon are $1.99 a month, way under the cost for a printed copy at the newsstand.  The Rolling Stone is $2.99 and I usually get two issues in a month.  So for $15 a month, the price of The New York Times, I get 11 magazines (4 New Yorkers, 2 Rolling Stones, Discover, Maximum PC, National Geographic, Home Theater and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  That’s a lot of reading for $15 a month, and a lot of variety.

However, I also subscribe to Zite, an app on my iPad where I do the most of my news reading, and that’s free.  I get free articles from those magazines above and who knows how many more, all for free.  In fact, I spend so much time reading Zite, because it’s customized to my interests, that I’m thinking of cancelling my magazine subscriptions.  But that’s another issue.  Like when I subscribed to paper copies of magazines I mostly let them go unread.

Even if I paid $15 a month for The New York Times I’m not sure how many articles I would read above the 10 articles a month they offer now for free.  I don’t expect everything to be free on the internet, but sadly, paid content has to compete with free.  Zite, which is free, is actually worth $15 a month, because I get access to zillions of magazine articles, newspaper stories, and web blogs.

I’m also a subscriber to Safari Books Online, a subscription library to technical books.  I pay $9.99 a month and get to have 5 books a month “checked out” to read.  I can keep them longer, but I have to keep them at least one month.  So for $120 a year I get to read as many as 60 books, which means the price could be as low as $2 a book.  That’s a bargain when most computer books are $40-50.

And I’m a member of Amazon Prime.  For $79 a year I get unlimited 2-day shipping, access to 12 ebooks (1 a month from their library of 100,000 titles) and unlimited access to thousands of movies and TV shows.  This is another tremendous bargain.  I also buy ebooks for my Kindle and iPad from Amazon.  Costs run from free to $9.99.  On very rare occasions I’ll pay more, but it hurts.  Digital books just seem less valuable than physical books.  I don’t feel like I collect digital books like I do with hardcovers.  I don’t even feel I own ebooks.

Next Issue Media is now offering a library of digital magazines Netflix style for $9.99-$14.99 a month, but only one of the magazines I currently subscribe to, The New Yorker, is part of the deal.  If all of my regular magazines and The New York Times were part of the deal, then I’d go for it.  However, Zite with it’s intelligent reading system would still dominate my reading.  Flipping through magazines is just too time consuming.  What I want is a Zite Plus, a service that provides access to all the free and paid content I like to read.

Can you spot the trend in all of this?

I think most people on the net are willing to pay for digital goods if they get a bargain, especially if it’s part of a library of goods like Netflix, Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, Hulu Plus, Safari Online, Amazon Prime, etc.

And there is another issue about buying digital goods.  Some companies charge extra if you use their content on a smartphone.  Rdio and Spotify are $4.99 a month for listening on your computer but $9.99 a month to also listen on your smartphone.  The New York Times is $15/month for reading online and smartphone, $20 for online and tablet, and $35 for online, smartphone and tablet.  Why the heck is that?  It’s the same damn words.  Why would they care where you read their paper.

Netflix charges $7.99 a month and you can watch it on a whole array of possible devices.

JWH – 4/24/12

Classic Science Fiction Books on Audio, Kindle and Nook

First off, look at the PDF report I made:  Classics of Science Fiction on Audio, Kindle, and Nook.  [Excel version.] What I did was take the ranked list from the Classics of Science Fiction web site and make a spreadsheet adding columns for Audio, Kindle, Nook and In Print.  By “In Print” I meant there was a paper copy for sale.  I then looked for the books on Amazon, B&N and Audible.com web sites, marking their columns Yes or No.

The original Classics of Science Fiction list was pulled from a database of SF titles that had been recommended from 28 different sources.  The final list were all books that had been on at least 7 of the recommended lists.  What I wanted to know is how well these books are represented in ebook and audiobook editions.

Of the 193 titles, 143 can still be bought as old fashion books.  81 can be listened to as audio books, 69 read on the Kindle and 64 on the Nook.  So a little less than half are available as audio books, and about a third as ebooks.  That doesn’t sound too bad.

However, if you use just a Kindle for reading, two thirds are not available, so that does feel bad.  Or if you’re an audiobook fanatic, a little more than half are unavailable.

35 books were not available from any source and 35 books were available from all four sources.  I made the all sources blue, and the no sources red.  Some of the red books might be available from other sources like print on demand, for ebook readers other than Kindle or Nook, or even on the web as public domain. 

Many of the red titles were collections, so I don’t worry about them going out of print.  Often a writer’s short stories get recollected under new titles.  If I saw a new collection that appears to have most of the original stories I counted the old title as being in print.

What’s troublesome is the number of novels that are no longer available.  Should John Brunner’s Stand On Zanibar really be considered a classic if no one is selling it?  Some of these novels do come back into print every decade or so, so if this list was made again in a year it would all be different.  Yet, I would think with the advent of ebooks all books will become “in print” digitally.

Some of the short story collections really should be in print today because they are major collections that deserve to maintain their identity, such as:

  • Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas
  • Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Someday I might reevaluate this list and remove the books that people have obviously lost interest in, and remove most of the short story collections, and titles that really shouldn’t be listed as science fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm.  They are on here because fans polls or critics included them, but I think they shouldn’t be.

I’m also surprised by how many famous SF books are not available on the Kindle or Nook.  Do some authors not like ebooks and refuse to let their work appear in digital editions, or are there legal problems, or do some publishers think ebooks compete too well with print editions?

What’s fascinating is some books are only available in audiobook editions, like The Lensman series from E. E. “Doc” Smith.

JWH – 9/4/10

Revised 9/5/10:  I replaced the reference to Frank Herbert’s Under Pressure to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar because Chistopher Carey below pointed out that Under Pressure is also known as The Dragon in the Sea.  Thanks for that information.  I also found a little know hardback version of The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.  I also added an Excel version because of a reader request.

I also changed the totals in various places.  I don’t know if it’s going to be practical to update the essay every time I update the spreadsheet/pdf report.

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella from 1994, that was produced as an audiobook two years ago by Audible Frontiers.  I read the story when it came out and remembered being impressed, but I just couldn’t remember the details, so I listened to audiobook version, beautifully  narrated  by Jonathan Davis, and now it’s etched into my brain again.  I wonder how much I’ll remember about the story in 16 years?  I hate that my mind is a sieve.  And maybe, since I’m writing a review here, that will further reinforce my memory.

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is available to read online at Subterranean Press, and reprinted in these anthologies.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a fantasy allegory in science fiction drag about alien anthropologists finding seven artifacts at Olduvai Gorge that tell the story of extinct mankind.  Mankind had conquered the galaxy and the aliens both admired and hated us.  They wanted to know what drove humans to destroy everything we touched.  You can think of the recent film Avatar as an eighth story about homo sapiens’s impact on the galaxy.

I really hated the way Avatar painted humanity so thoroughly brutal and selfishly uncaring.  When I tell friends about this, they tell me that’s how they see humans too.  It’s certainly the way Mike Resnick paints us in “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” but he does it with more finesse than James Cameron.

The audio production of “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” runs two hours and twenty minutes and is seven short stories encased in a fictional frame.  Resnick infuses his firsthand knowledge of Africa into this tale, and uses Olduvai Gorge as the touchstone setting for the seven visions and the frame.  It works fantastically well on audio, and reminds me of a shorter version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I’ve always considered Bradbury the anti-science fiction science fiction writer because he fears the future, and sees so much horror in the nature of man.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” could be a homage to Bradbury.  I always like Mike Resnick’s prose because he’s better than most science fiction writers at blending emotion into his stories.  One of my all-time favorite short stories is his “Travels with My Cats.” [Also on audio at Escape Pod.]

I review a lot of science fiction, but the story review that gets the most hits is “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  My guess is the story is often taught in school, and if it wasn’t so long, I’d suggest teachers should replace “The Veldt” with “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.”  Both are cautionary tales about the evil side of humanity, a perfect Rorschach test for young minds to contemplate our reality.  How do you judge humanity after reading “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge?”  Are we inherently flawed?  Are we evil?  Not only do we threaten all other life forms, we lean towards the self-destructive.  And if we’re not evil, are we just stupid, aggressive and unrelentingly unaware?

Robert A. Heinlein used to brag that mankind is the most dangerous animal around and any intelligent life on other planets should get out of our way.  There’s a lot of extinct species on this planet that would agree with him.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” agrees with this sentiment, but who is Mike Resnick warning?  I don’t think his message is to aliens from outer space.  Are we merely meant to accept this story at face value?  Or does Resnick expect us to smarten up?

JWH – 2/2/10

My Life on a Hard Drive

I wanted to call this essay, “My Life on a Terabyte Drive” because it sounded cooler and more specific, but then I’m thinking about buying a netbook and they only come with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space, something less glamorous to say in a title.  I can’t even fit my music collection on that, so it wouldn’t be true either.  If you read to the end of this essay, you’ll see I could have called it, “My Memory Book,” but that title wouldn’t mean anything to you until I explained it all. 

Either at work, or with friends, I’ve had to help many people move their personal data from one computer to another.  When I started this kind of support years ago, all I needed was one floppy.  The last time I moved my stuff to a new machine, I bought a 750gb USB drive.  No, I didn’t need to fill it up, at least not then.  My Mozy.com account says I have 193.3gb backed up with them, but that’s only my life from one of three home computers, and I’ve yet to complete the epic task of scanning all my family photos.

When I contemplate putting my life on a hard disk many fanciful ideas come to mind.  I like to compare this goal to mind uploading, a science fictional concept that deals with transferring a person’s personality to a computer.  I first wrote about this idea in “My Life in 75 Megabytes,” which lets you know how long I’ve been thinking about this concept.  Back then my own expanding universe was much smaller, and could fit on a zip disk.

I find I have seven discrete concepts I’d like to explore in this essay:

  1. What goes into a digitized life?
  2. How is a digital life organized?
  3. How do we synced ourselves across many machines?
  4. What role does the media player play?
  5. How to we span living across local and network drives?
  6. What do we need to protect our digital memory?
  7. And do our files define our personality?

Thinking about buying a netbook that will be my carry-around auxiliary mind, a Mini-Me, so to say, I’d like to think about it’s full theoretical potential.  Let’s just play with the idea of what we’d like to have on a computer if one day we found ourselves orphaned from home with only the clothes on our back and a computer in our hand.

What Goes Into a Digitized Life?

Photographs have been the primary artifact that people want to protect and preserve.  Photographs are what people cry over the most when their CPU bytes the big one.  Next up is music files, either ripped, stolen or DRMed.  Few people stuff their machines with essays and fiction like me, but many folks like to maintain a wordy autobiography in the form of an email archive.  A few $-minded souls, horde tax records like misers.  And I’m starting to see hard drives become the new shoebox for home videos.  I myself, have hundreds of audio books that I’ve tediously ripped from cassette tapes and CDs that I’d hate to lose.  My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes.  I’ve met a few people who maintain databases of things they love to collect.  When it comes down to it, there’s an almost endless variety of things people junk up their hard drives with and want to save forever.

All this digital junk can be broken down into two extremely distinct types:  Unique, owner created data, that can’t be found anywhere else, and copies of stuff other people created, either received free, stolen or bought.  It’s far more painful to have a laptop stolen with five years of digital snapshots than one with hundreds of dollars worth of songs bought from iTunes.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s not worry about the actual size of the hard drive on your buddy computer, but instead imagine this device will contain everything you want to save that can be digitized and if found in 30 years by your grandchildren, or 300 years by a scholar of the 21st century history, would make a statement about who you are.  Think about this super-netbook as your library of personally created data, plus copies of your favorite songs, books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, poems, short stories, novels, etc.  Just think of it as the memory you wished your neurons could records.

The File Structure of Our Lives

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into someone else’s computer and tried to extract what they desperately want to save, but it’s a fascinating task.  Microsoft, Apple and Linus all make provisions for storing user documents in a specified place, but users do their damnedest to squirrel important files all over their drives.  And even when they stick to the Home directory concept, everyone creates their own folder structure and naming system.  In recent years the idea of standard music and photo folders have emerged, which is great, but I think we need to convene a panel of Nobel prize winning eggheads to develop a worldwide standard, to be used across all OS systems, so future archeologists poking through our private digital junkyards can easily find our treasured entombed memories, and make sense of them.

We need to organize our auxiliary brains and keep them tidy for ourselves too, because as we toss more stuff into our net noggins, finding what we want becomes harder and annoying.  I love the fact that most applications in Windows now open My Documents as default when you mouse click Open File.  It drives me nuts that people want to override this and put their crap all over the desktop or in folders they created off of the root drive. 

I’m also glad Microsoft simplified “My Documents,” “My Music,” and “My Pictures” into Documents, Music and Pictures.  But now we need to expand on that to include Videos, Movies, Books and other categories.  This is where things get tricky, where arguments start, and OS turf wars begin.  Under “Jim” on my Vista machine I have:

  • Desktop
  • Downloads
  • Links
  • Pictures
  • Searches
  • Documents – Shortcut
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • Favorites
  • Music
  • Saved Games
  • Videos

This is how Microsoft divides my life, and they’ve made some mysterious choices to me.  I wish I had a Mac so I could see how Steve Jobs wants the same job accomplished.  Ubuntu just gives me a home folder, leaving me free to make my own decisions from there   Since our computer will define our personality and I said we could save anything digital document that defines us, this means the home folder will become a library of digital files.  I’m not sure if the structure set out by Microsoft is a workable Dewey Decimal system for this task though.

What folder do I file my digital audio books?  Where do I put my ebooks or .pdf files for magazines and articles?  And should I save Gattaca, my favorite science fiction movie under Videos, the same place where I would store my home made clips?  And if I collected favorite YouTube videos, should they also be filed with my personal videos?

I think we need to rethink the \Home\ folder concept.  \Jim\ should be just for documents I created, and another folder called \Library\ should be used for all files I collect that were created by other people.  And the two might even have sub-folders with the same titles, like \Videos\,  \Photos\ and \Music\.  (That’s assuming I become more creative than I am now.)  Thus the new \Jim\ might contain these sub-folders:

  • Audioclips
  • Banking
  • Blogs
  • Bookmarks
  • Data
  • Diary
  • Emails
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • HTML
  • Lists
  • Medical
  • Numbers
  • Photos
  • Timeline
  • Video

This isn’t perfect yet, but I hope you see where I’m going.  Under \Library\ I might have these sub-folders:

  • Art
  • Audiobooks
  • Books
  • Lectures
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Podcasts
  • Television
  • Video

In my personal folder, I have Photos, for those I take, but Photographs under Library, for pictures I buy.  Art would be for digitized artwork I like.  My desktop gallery program could be set to pull from Art, Photos and Photographs.

How to Keep our Digital Life Synced?

I have two desktop machines and laptop at home, and various iPod and MP3 players, including a iPod touch, and I’m planning to buy a netbook.  Plus I have several computers at work with years of programming code I created that I never want to loose.  At work I have USB drive I brought from home that has a backup of all my home files, but in particularly, my music library so I can play songs at work.  At times I also bring USB drives home, so my work is backed up.

The absolute ideal file storage solution would a 100% reliable gigabit network to a federally protected online databank with all my computers accessing one file system library that was perfectly safe until the Sun goes nova.  Plus, my data would be preserved for ever and ever, even after I died, for historical researchers.  I’m watching The Tudors – don’t you wish the producers of the show had access to Henry’s and Anne’s home directories?

Unfortunately, we don’t have such an ideal solution.  The trend is toward owning multiple computers, and by computer I also mean cell phone, iPod, and even video game units, anything that processes and stores digital data you create.   And we’re already seeing syncing solutions.  You can backup cell phone directories to your home computer, or if you have an iPhone, you can get your email, contacts and calendar from an Exchange server at work, thus syncing your phone numbers in one database.

In fact, the iPhone is a marvelous device, in that it can sync songs, photos, audiobooks, television shows, movies and other files from your mothership desktop to your lifeboat phone.  Apple doesn’t seem to like the concepts of netbooks, hoping you will use an iPhone/touch instead.  However, I find their amazing little screen too small to be my carry-around computer companion.

The Role of the Media Player

iTunes is also a fascinating program and concept.  It’s a program that attempts to manage the \Library\ portion of your file system, and a media player for playing songs, television shows, movies and audiobooks from your library.  With a bit of tweaking from Apple, it theoretically could handle my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and PDF documents too, if we wanted one file librarian to manage all my computer files, including the personally created \Jim\ files too.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Right now we generally have one program that creates each kind of content, such as a word processer for writing, a spreadsheet for playing with numbers, a database for handling data in tables, a publishing program for making magazine content, web editors for creating web pages, audio programs for recording voice, and so on.  But on the other hand, there are two classes of programs emerging that show us the results of what these other programs produce.  The first general class of file viewers is the web browser for looking at data files on the net, and the second program is the media librarian for looking at files on your computer.

I’m not sure if media librarians are a good idea or not.  They are designed to make life easier for the user and isolate the user from knowing about the file system.  The entire Macintosh philosophy seems to follow this belief too, that things are easier if you keep the user from needing to know too much about the file system.  I’m not sure that’s a good educational goal.  Both the web browser and media librarian work to replace the operating system.  An emerging class of Linux netbooks work to create an easy-to-use visual menu that sits on top of the OS and hides things from the user too.

The trouble is, if users work directly with the file system and double clicks on one, whether word processor document, or mp3 music file, those files will be launched into an editor program, rather than a player program, assuming the user created the files.  Media librarians like iTunes, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, Audible Manager are great for organizing and playing certain kinds of files, producing playlists, sharing media with other users, etc.  The trouble is to select one universal media library program that does everything perfectly.

When I download an audiobook from Audible.com, it goes into my iTunes and Audible Manager, and I can have it also go into my Windows Media Player.  Sometimes the download gets messed up and the audiobook doesn’t get filed in one of the players.  So I have to find the file and manually add it to the library.  iTunes files all MP3 files under Music, so songs and ripped audio books get mixed together.  That annoys me.

Plus iTunes only wants to work with iPods, so it doesn’t help me when I use my Zune.  But then my Zune Media player won’t have anything to do with my iPods.  And all my media librarians fight to own my MP3 collection of 18,000+ songs.  It’s a huge pain.  I also have multiple programs willing to play my videos too, but none are universal, thus I have to have specialty programs like Amazon Unbox to view videos bought from Amazon.

Right now you can set Windows to launch any program you choose for a particular file extension.  Thus if I have Rhapsody set for .mp3, it will launch when I click on a song or an audiobook or a podcast, all of which share the .mp3 extension.  I wish Windows would allow a folder override to this system, so for \Audiobooks\ I could set Audible Manager as a my player, and for \Music\ I could set Windows Media Player, and for \Podcasts\ I could set iTunes.

Now that we’re slowly moving away from DRM enslaved files, we will be less reliant on media librarian programs like iTunes.  Also, why does your favorite program to play songs also have to be your program to load songs onto a MP3 player?  And why can’t I have one librarian for all my devices, including iPods, Creative MP3 players, Zune, phone and netbooks?  Every portable device has a limited amount of storage space, so wouldn’t it be great to have a librarian on my largest computer that could talk to all my lesser computers and help me manage a subset of files I want to maintain on each?

I would love a librarian where I could rate my content 1-10, whether songs, movies or word documents, and then when I plug in a portable device, the librarian would show me how much that device can handle by telling me, “This device can hold all content rated 8 and above, would you like me to load it?”  Or I could set it to always load personally created data first, then songs as a second priority, and only sync television marked unseen, and to manually sync movies.

Even still, I’m not sure I like one program to do everything for me.  I like choice.  I like the Unix philosophy of having a tool for each job.  I think I’d prefer to pick each app that played each kind of file.  That way I could have the perfect ebook reader for me that might be different from my perfect music player.   Hell, I might like one kind of MP3 player for playing albums, another for playing playlists, another for random playing of songs, and even another program where I play and manage my all-time favorite 1,001 tunes.  And all of these would work from the same \Music\ folder structure.  I’d also like a program that would generate reports on the \Music\ folder by listing all albums, artists and tracks, and keep statistics on each.  I have no idea how many albums I own, even though they are all on a computer.

Hard Disk Driving versus Network Driving

As the Internet get better, meaning faster and with more features, space on our local hard drives will be needed less, until we only need to store personally created data.  If Rhapsody’s library had every song my personal music library did, I’d never mess with a \Music\ folder again.  If the network was fast and always dependable, I wouldn’t even worry about putting songs, television and movies on my devices because I’d just stream them from Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora, Zune, Netflix and Amazon.  A netbook with a 160gb hard drive would be fine and dandy as my auxiliary brain until I took too many photos or videos.  And if I could store unlimited photos and videos reliably online, I’d again be free of hard drive space limitations.

If the the broadband and the network were that great I wouldn’t even need a \Library\ file system at all.  However, any experience with flaky network connections will make you horde your favorite content locally.

There’s a reason why they call these cute little computers netbooks.  They are gadgets designed to depend on the Internet for their content.  I’ve never wanted a smartphone because I’ve never wanted to pay a broadband cell phone bill, but I’d be much more likely to want broadband service with a netbook.  And all the cell phone providers are quickly ramping up to sell netbooks with two-year broadband contracts. 

Laptops were supposed to be on-the-go computing, but they have been too big, too expensive and don’t last long enough on a charge, to be the always on-the-go computers.  I just don’t want to carry an expensive laptop everywhere, afraid I might break it, lose it, or have it stolen, but I might carry a $350 machine everywhere I went, especially if it’s charge would last all day like a cell phone, and I could get access to the net.

I’ve set up a half-dozen netbooks so far, all for women who want these purse size computers.  I’ve had several grown women in my office all squealing like girls over purple and pinkness.  They don’t even understand the potential of netbooks, all they see is pretty and purse-able.  They even buy netbooks with their own money for work use.  I’ve talked to other women that bought them for home use at Walmart or from the Home Shopping Channel, and they tell me their kids are buying them too.  Netbooks are hot.  $250-$400 seems to be the right price for portable computing.

I’m waiting for 8 hours of battery life, which many models have now, and better video processing, which is coming this fall.  I’d also like faster processing and I’m torn on deciding between a 10” or 12” screen, and what resolution it should have.  I’ve set up a Dell Mini 10 with 1366×768 resolution that’s super sharp but teeny tiny  But the Dell’s was properly proportioned at the resolution, something not true of all netbook screens I’ve seen.  I hate squashed or stretched fonts!  

Netbooks are getting very close to showing 1080p video, so they will make great on-the-road theaters that can replace portable DVD players and iPods, plus they make great Skype video phones.  Combined with broadband and Bluetooth headsets, they can be cell phones too.  The implications for this auxiliary brain as a communications tool is immense.

Backing Up is Hard To Do

As we put more of our life on our netbooks, or should we steal a trademark, our Lifebooks, it will be vital to back them up.  If netbooks are synced with desktop computers, that’s one level of backup.  Asus even sells their netbooks with 10gb of online storage.  And there is always services like Mozy.com that backup files to Internet servers.  But the main thing to remember, these devices will become our heads we can lose, and we’ll hate the day we experience a digital lobotomy.  I’ve always said the Internet is our real sixth sense, and netbooks will only reinforce this belief.  Once we all got addicted to electrical devices like computers and televisions, we’d get pissed when electricity went off.  After I became dependent on the net, I actually get jumpy and depressed when the net goes down.  If we become addicted to our little buddy computers we carry everywhere, losing one will be painful indeed.  Like losing part of ourselves.  Being able to quickly replicate our digital life onto a replacement netbook will be extremely important.

Do Our Files Reflect Our Personality?

If a team of psychologists with AI tools, found my future netbook with all my writing and all my favorite photos, art, books, movies, television shows, songs, on it, could they analyze the content and produce a description of my personality?  If netbooks had been around for hundreds of years, and we could study the content of our ancestors, how much would we know about them?  My father died when I was 19, and there has always been so much I’ve wondered about him.  I would love to have a copy of his auxiliary brain.

Also, imagine kids starting school with netbooks and keeping all their schoolwork, photos and videos they make throughout their K-12 careers.  Boy, I wished I had such a childhood treasure.  I wished I had taken photos of all my classmates, all my classrooms, hallways, schools and teachers.  I wish I had taken photos of all the homes I lived in, with photos of all the rooms, furniture and the streets I walked.  We always focused our cameras on families and friends, but I wished I had also taken photos of objects, like houses, rooms, streets, cars of my life, to aid my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much that I’d love to recall.  Maybe it has little true value, because I did forget all that stuff, but now I wish I had more evidence of my earlier life.  I wish I had photos of every dog and cat I owned.  I can barely picture my furry friends now, mostly just recall their names, like Blacky, Chief or Mike, and some I can’t even remember, which is sad.

I seriously doubt there is much real detail to download from our brains, if such a science fictional reality is ever possible.  I don’t know if personality profiles can be resurrected from netbooks, but I think my sense of personal history would be much stronger, and my self awareness, far more vivid, if my poor old brain had more solid evidence.

The Future of Netbooks

Thinking about these seven concepts of how we could store our life digitally and have it readily at hand, to help us with day-to-day activities, makes me picture all kinds of possibilities for netbooks.  I doubt our futures will include jacks in the back of our skulls like the people in the movie, The Matrix, but the netbook could become the mind-computer interface between ourselves and the net. 

With Bluetooth, we could have cell phone like headsets, so we could make calls, but also use our netbooks for dictating voice recordings, to aid our memory with verbal annotations.  Photo and video cameras could be combined with Bluetooth so anything we snap or video is immediately recorded to our external brains.  Medical monitoring devices could be combined with Bluetooth, netbooks and broadband for new kinds of health tracking and assessment.  Netbooks will only expand social networking, and if our youthful population is so close now because of cell phones, think what constant video phoning will do to their generation.

Netbooks might finally bring us into the age of videophone that’s been predicted by science fiction since Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon entertained tykes in the 1930s in the Sunday funnies.  Computer pundits thought we’d all be wearing computers by now, but maybe a good device that’s easy to carry will do instead.  This makes me predict purses will become common for men, at least leather over-the-shoulder pouches, or we’ll see more men with messenger bags.  But netbooks are so easy to carry, they may never get to far from our hands.

If netbooks had reversible LCD touch screens as a standard feature, so they could function like Tablet PCs, netbooks could replace the emerging ebooks devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.  Right now I find it easiest to carry a cell phone in my pants pocket and a Zune in my shirt pocket, one for phone service the other for audiobooks.  But if I have a netbook with me wherever I go, or nearby, then all I would need to carry on my person is a Bluetooth headset.  Should I predict the demise of the iPhone and iPod?

The deciding factors on buying a netbook is how big the screen and keyboard, and whether or not they are useable for long periods of typing and reading.  I bought an iPod touch to be my carry around computer, but I didn’t like typing with a single finger, and the screen was too small for browsing the web.  It’s pretty nice for reading text email, terrible for HTML email, very nice for checking movie times and looking at previews, pleasant for reading ebooks, although I might like a slightly larger screen, and very nice for Pandora and Wolfgang’s Vault. 

When netbooks first burst on the scene in 2007, their appeal included solid state storage over spinning hard drives, so, “My Life on a Hard Drive” might be a poor title soon, but if spinning drives disappear, I predict we’ll still call solid state devices hard drives too.  Technology is evolving away from moving parts, so we might eventually call netbooks, memory books, the name I want to use for them.  If the right technology pans out, and the right pricing for broadband emerges, memory books might be very common indeed. 

What will you put on your memory book?  How will you organize it.  How can a memory book improve your life?  A good portion of our population has been able to avoid the computer revolution, but if a memory book becomes so personally useful, will anyone choose to be a Luddite in this revolution?  As I age, and my memory falters and skips, being able to query a memory book becomes a very useful mental crutch.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Will it make me weaker or stronger?

I do know organizing my thoughts for this blog helps me retain words, and even learn to use new words.  Writing these blogs help me refine and distinguish discrete ideas and concepts.  In the past year I’ve met a number of people, usually young, who have asked me what my favorite movies, books and songs are, and I had a hard time making a quick list.  That disturbs me.  Maybe if I constantly worked to maintain a library of favorites on my memory book, or even just keep my memory book handy and constantly annotated a list of favorites, I would feel better.  Who knows, I might not even need to open my memory book, but my real memory of such lists would be fresh enough to have something to say in casual conversations.

I don’t know if my memory weakness is normal for someone my age, or if it portends Alzheimer’s in future years.  My wife already gets impatient with my slowness to respond, and hates when I tell her she better start acquiring more patience in case I get worse.  “You better not,” she warns me.  Having a memory book might become the glasses of my memories someday.  Or my memory book might become a very large hand to write notes on.  Or it my memory book might become a gym to exercise my neurons.   This is all fascinating to consider, and I can’t wait to test out these ideas.  I’m just not ready to buy a netbook yet.

JWH – 6/28/9

Science Fiction Classics on Audible.com

I read hundreds of science fiction books during my teenage years growing up in the 1960s.  Adolescence, rock music and science fiction came together in a perfect storm during that epic time.  What’s even more far out is how much fun I’m having rereading those books again in my fifties, but this time around I’m listening to them as audio books.  I’ve discovered that you really don’t love a book unless you read it several times over a lifetime, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you can’t really appreciate a book until you’ve both read and listened to it.  Inputting words through the eyes and ears are completely different ways to boot your brain into experiencing the full potential of fiction.

Many people have told me they can’t listen to audio books.  Well, audio book listening takes practice, just like reading.  And if you are like me, getting too comfortable with eyeball reading can be dangerous because it’s all too easy to get into eye track ruts.

It’s taken many years for publishers to start cranking out science fiction on audio.  Steve Feldberg over at Audible.com has been doing a bang up job of getting new audio book science fiction titles for his company.  I look at Audible’s new releases every day anxiously awaiting to see what new titles will show up, especially books from the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Recently More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon hit the New Releases page and I’m listening to it now.  It’s nothing like what I remember reading 40+ years ago.  I now feel like Sturgeon is the Faulkner of science fiction.  I just finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov that I considered a mildly fun, but mostly boring robot novel as a teen.  This time around I’m stunned by how good it is.  Time travel has always been a staple of science fiction, but time traveling backwards through my reading life is almost as much fun as having a real time machine, I kid you not.

On the Classics of Science Fiction list, three books tie for the #1 spot, by being on 25 out of 28 recommended lists:

  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I’ll put the titles available on Audible.com in bold.  Dune is now out in its second audio book edition, so I’m mighty glad to see More Than Human, but I’m wondering when The Demolished Man will show up.

Four books share the #2 spot by being on 24 out of 28 lists.

  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

Sadly, Audible only offers an old abridged version of Foundation, but I know that Books on Tape has all three books of the trilogy plus Prelude to Foundation and their titles do show up on Audible eventually.  The book I want to see most here is The Left Hand of Darkness, but Stand on Zanzibar and A Canticle for Leibowitz are books I’d buy immediately too.

There are three books tied for third (23 lists):

  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Audible streaks through here.  I profoundly enjoyed listening Childhood’s End recently.

Only one title holds the 4th place (on 22 lists):

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

At 5th place on 21 lists are:

  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth

I’m most anxious hear the Bester and Le Guin.  I read The Space Merchants last year and I was rather disappointed with it, so I’m not sure if it would sell well with an audio edition, although with the right reader, the satire and humor might jump out and make it more appealing.  Audible has 19 Le Guin audio books, just not her two most famous.

In 6th place on 20 lists are:

  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • City by Clifford Simak

I can vouch for the Dick and Simak, both authors really shine through on audio.  In fact, listening to PKD’s weird imaginary worlds is the best way to do get PKDicked.  I can’t believe Hal Clement isn’t on audio.

Lucky seventh place brings in seven titles (19 lists):

  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl

I’m hoping to listen to Rama and Scattered Bodies soon.  And I hope Steve Feldberg finds Gateway because it was the novel that brought me back to science fiction after I gafiated for a decade.

Coming in 8th place are three novels (18 lists):

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt

Fahrenheit 451 is a beautiful novel for bookworms to read and it’s especially appropriate to listen to because it lets you imagine trying to memorize it.  I don’t have much hope for the other two books getting on audio because they have a reputation for being hard to get into, but audio book editions might make them more accessible.

In ninth place we get five more titles (17 lists):

  • The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian Aldiss
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Of these, I’m most looking forward to the Aldiss.  That’s one trippy novel.   I listened to A Case of Conscience over the Christmas holidays and enjoyed it.  It makes a great companion book to Childhood’s End, because they both deal with religion.

Rounding out 10th place with seven books bringing the grand total to the Top 40 (16 lists):

  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch
  • Way Station by Clifford Simak
  • Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  • Slan by A. E. Van Vogt
  • The Humanoids by Jack Vance

Timescape is an elegant quiet novel that works very well on audio.  Way Station’s moody pastoral setting also works well on audio.  Again, I’ll be surprised to ever hear an audio edition of Stapledon.  I’m looking forward to Slan, which I’ll probably listen to soon, it should be a nice companion listen to More Than Human.  I listened to The Humanoids years ago and was impressed.  Now that I’m on a robot kick I should relisten to it.  Both Clockwork and Concentration are bleak novels that I might not get into the mood to hear for years.  I think I prefer the positive sense of wonder SF of the 1950s and 1960s right now.

There are 153 more books on the Classics of SF list, many of which are on audio.  There are four Samuel R. Delany novels, none of which have had audio editions that I’d love to hear.  I’m reading Babel-17 for the fourth time and I really ache to hear it, and it’s companion short novel, Empire Star, but I’m also very anxious to hear Nova, The Einstein Intersection and Dhalgren.

Other books from Audible that’s on the Classics of Science Fiction list:

  • Frankenstein
  • Lord of Light
  • A Princess of Mars
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Out of the Silent Planet
  • I, Robot
  • Starship Troopers
  • Ubik
  • Sirens of Titan
  • Slaughterhouse Five
  • Startide Rising
  • Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion
  • The Caves of Steal
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • Double Star
  • Blood Music
  • Gray Lensmen
  • Ender’s Game
  • The Big Time
  • The Illustrated Man
  • Red Mars
  • Doomsday Book

And many many more.

Probably everyone has a favorite science fiction novel they’d love to hear on audio.  Be sure and join Audible and go to their Contact Us page and click on the content request link.  I put in 7 books in 2003 and just notice that I got 5 of my wishes over the years.

JWH – 3/10/9

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience by James Blish is the 1959 Hugo award winning novel that was recently produced as an unabridged audio book by Audible Frontiers, the science fiction and fantasy publishing imprint from Audible.com.  The book is wonderfully narrated by Jay Snyder.  When I became addicted to audio books back in 2002 I constantly searched for classic science fiction books on audio.  There weren’t many available.  For about a year now Audible Frontiers has been cranking out far more SF audio books than I have time to listen to.  Even today, when I go through the audio sections at book stores, I seldom see many science fiction titles for sale.

You can buy A Case of Conscience as an audio book through Amazon, via a link back to Audible, or from the iTunes Store, for $17-19 dollars, but the cheapest way to get it is to join Audible.com.  To get those bargain prices requires committing to a 1 or 2 book-a-month plan.  I buy an annual 24-pack deal and get books for $9.56 each.  To get some idea of why you might want to join Audible.com, look at Hugo Winners on Audible and Heinlein on Audio.  The catch is you have to be tech savvy enough to listen to audio books on your iPod or MP3 digital player.  Audible.com does allow you to burn CDs, but that takes some tech know-how too.

Now, do I recommend you go buy A Case of Conscience?  I enjoyed the book, but I’ve got to warn modern readers about 1950s science fiction.  A Case of Conscience is a fix-up novel, combining the 1953 novella set on the distant planet Lithia, with newer material, with the same characters back on Earth continuing the story.  Many classic science fiction novels, like Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and City by Clifford Simak, were fix-up novels.  They feel like reading short stories rather than novels.  The second warning I have to give is about the nature of classic SF, especially books from the 1950s.  They are idea driven, rather than plot driven.  My guess is young people today who love action driven science fiction might grumble about these older cerebral stories.

James Blish does some excellent world-building with Lithia.  It’s a planet poor in heavy metals like iron, but the intelligent beings there have learned alternate routes to scientific discoveries and have engineered a technologically advance society.  The Lithians never discovered magnetism and electricity, but have created technology based on static electricity, and pushed the limits of biology further than we have.  Blish did a great job creating a fascinating planet and culture, but that’s only the setup for the real idea that’s central to the book.

A Case of Conscience combines science fiction and religion to make for a philosophical story.  A team of four scientists are sent to evaluate Lithia, but the biologist, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit, and he makes a startling claim about Lithia and the Lithians.  The Lithians have no concept of God, afterlife, sin, or even things like fiction or lies.  They are logical.  Their culture is an atheist’s utopia.  I love what Blish does with this, and I won’t spoil any of his story.  I’m very appreciative to Steve Feldberg and Audible.com for bringing this book to audio.  I tried to read A Case of Conscience twice before in my life and didn’t get into it either time.  This wonderful audio reading made it completely accessible to me.  Blish’s style was too dry for me to read, but lovely to listen to.  I don’t know why.

The real reason I want to recommend this book is because we should think about contact with alien culture and religion.  What if SETI makes first contact and our new friends have never even imagined the concept of God?  That is possible.  What will they do when we tell them about our spiritual theories?  What if they have theories about the origin of the universe that we never thought about?

Most fundamentalists cannot handle even minor variations in their own religion, much less deal with ecumenical diversity of world religions.  Their narrowly focused personally held concepts would probably be blown away by ancient ideas in the many dead religions in our history, so how would they react to a true alien spirituality?  So what happens if the nightly news programs are bombarded with religious ideas from light years away?  What if these alien missionaries have existed for millions of years and know a lot more about everything?  Will we form cargo cults in reaction to these superior wisdom, like primitive people in the 20th century when encountering modern westerners for the first time?

In the next ten thousand years we will probably never meet any aliens face to face, but there’s a good chance of finally having some success with SETI, and initiate interstellar texting sessions with dialog response times in the decades, centuries or even millennia.  Even if we detected an alien signal today, it could take so long to respond and develop a way to converse that it could be centuries before we get down to chatting about vague philosophical concepts.  The novelty of the alien existence will wear off before we know what they think.

Today, because of science fiction, I believe most of the world assumes that there are intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe.  We also assume we’ll share the same mathematics, physics and chemistry, but will probably diverge with biology.  But what kind of overlap will be possible for philosophy, religion, art and music?  Music has a relationship with mathematics and physics, so it is possible there could be strange alien music we could hear and think of as melody.  Art connects with vision which also connects with physics.  The idea of creating beautiful objects that nature didn’t could be common.

Alien religion and philosophy are harder to imagine.  James Blish essential creates an alien world and then forces a John Milton like Catholic interpretation upon it.  Mary Doria Russell explores the same ground in her magnificent novel, The Sparrow.  Is it possible to evaluate an alien religion without seeing it through our own glasses made from our religion?  Can we even see a religion without being religious?  Do dolphins and whales have religion?  They are the closest thing we have to alien intelligence and we know so little about them.

Is worship the defining characteristic of religion?  Is it possible to have religion without gods, either seen or unseen?  If all aliens have the same image in their homes, do we consider that a sign of religion?  Would aliens exploring our world think of religion when they count all the photos of Brittany Spears?

We often talk as if God is the same deity whether the Earthy believer is Christian, Muslim or Jew.  Would our alien friends see that?  Would they assume our God is their God?  For most of this planet’s history, our believers believed their God made this world, but they never knew it was just one of billions upon billions of worlds.  Does each world get their own creator?  Or is their one God that knows about every sparrow on this world, also know about every sparrow like creature on every other world?

In the end, we have to judge James Blish on how he handles his religious problem in A Case of Conscience.  Does the ending imply that Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez was right in his judgement of Lithia?  If that is true, then we have to believe that Blish does believe, at least for this story, that it’s possible that our God is supreme, that our Earth is the center of reality, and that all the rest of the universe is part of a lesson to teach us about God’s word.  Isn’t it rather strange that God would build such a big school-house just for us?

What would a universal religion be like that covered a universe fourteen billion light years across and was home to billions of intelligent life-forms and their planets.  Knowing as much astronomy as I do I find it hard not to be an atheist, but I could be wrong.  I believe religion is only practical at the tribal level, but again I could be wrong.  But if there is one God and his territory covers all of the cosmos, then I can’t help believe that mathematics, physics, chemistry and all the other sciences is the true Bible of this God.

JWH 12/21/8

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet was the first Robert A. Heinlein novel I discovered back in 1964, and with the first reading of that book I turned into a life-long fan of Heinlein’s work.  From 1964 through 1966 I read Heinlein’s backlog of books, some several times, so after a four year dry spell of no new books I was mentally demolished when in 1970 I read I Will Fear No Evil and hated it.  Somehow my literary hero wrote a clinker, at least in my eyes.  After The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein (1966), Heinlein never wrote another book I liked.

I still love rereading Heinlein, and usually reread a few of his novels every year.  In the last decade I’ve been listening to audio book editions of his books.  Red Planet just came out on unabridged audio from Full Cast Audio, a company that publishes audio books for young people.  Full cast audio means each character gets their own actor performing the lines.  This works extremely well for young adult novels, and Red Planet comes off wonderful in this format, making each character dramatically stand out.  I’m not sure what authors think about this technique, because the actors get to emotively interpret their character.  In this edition I think they all stay well within the cues Heinlein gave his readers.

This edition of Red Planet from Full Cast Audio uses the restored unedited edition from Del Rey published after Heinlein’s death.  For more information on that, read “Red Planet – Blue Pencil.”

Red-planet-cover

Over the years I’ve struggled with why I don’t like the Heinlein books that came out after 1969.  Why was that such a turning point?  As I got older, I also discovered that his novels after 1959 were different, and they had many elements I didn’t like too.  Before 1969, most of the novels I read were science fiction, but after that my reading tastes broaden.  I was constantly changing from 1969 through 2008, so it’s understandable that my reaction to the books would change too.

Listening to Red Planet gave me an interesting new insight.  Up till now I thought Heinlein became a different person sometime in the 1960s, but in his 1949 story, Red Planet, I found all the elements of later Heinlein hidden away.  The reality is, no matter how much we all feel like we’ve changed and matured, we’re still the same person all our lives.  I’ve long figured that editors influenced what Heinlein wrote, especially before his move to Putnam in 1959 with Starship Troopers.

redplanet2

There’s a strong dichotomy of opinion about Heinlein.  Most of his fans are extremely loyal, if not rabid. There are many people who try to read Heinlein and can’t stand him.  I’m in this middle zone, both loving his work, and despising it, and it’s a very weird position to hold.  I often piss-off other Heinlein fans when I express my doubts, but I seldom meet people who read, reread and study his work like I do.  If I had the time, I’d love to write an analysis of his writing, which I think might end up being a psychological study of myself.

But back to Red Planet.  I’m quite confident that this time was at least my fourth time through the book, and I was amazed by parts I didn’t remember.  It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I discovered I had listened to the revised edition.  Memory is such a fascinating subject.  At one level, I only remembered the book vaguely.  If I had tried to write down what the book was about before I listened to it, I would have given a skimpy plot outline, and then a general impression of several cherished scenes.  When I started listening to the book much of it came back to me, so I could predict just before it happened what would happen.  I call that movie déjà vu because I often feel that when seeing a movie I had watched decades earlier and forgotten.   It’s the weird feeling of knowing what will happen just before the event unfolds.

The revealing part on listening to Red Planet this time, was all the stuff I had completely forgotten since my last reading in 1989.  You’d think after four reading there would be very little I wouldn’t remember at some level.  That wasn’t true.  What’s even more revealing, and I imagine astute readers of this essay will guess, the unfamiliar parts were more like the Heinlein I disliked.  But I hadn’t forgotten.  I was tricked by the new restored edition.

Heinlein had even written Alice Dalgleish, his 1949 Scribner’s editor, “I have made great effort to remove my viewpoint from the book and to incorporate yours, convincingly – but in so doing I have been writing from reasons of economic necessity something that I do not believe.”  I have long theorized that Heinlein’s personal opinions ruined his later stories, and that the reason why I liked the earlier books better were due to editorial censorship.

Story elements that Heinlein would later fixate on are now here in Red Planet, but in shorter, and still restrained form.  Listening to Red Planet showed me I could probably build a list of Heinlein themes that probably exist to some degree in all of his books, either subtly hidden away by editors, revealed by restored editions, or just blaring in later books.

Heinlein explored a wide range of science fictional frontiers, but in the end he often repeated himself thematically.  There is a quality in art that I call the “Beatles Effect.”  I believe a large part of the Beatles success in the 1960s was due to the Fab Four working hard to make every song different.  Mediocre artists tend to create work that has a sameness to it.  Heinlein’s most distinctive individualistic work was all done before 1969, and in particular, before 1959.  During the 1950s, Robert A. Heinlein was The Beatles of science fiction.  Those books are still in print half a century later.  Red Planet has its 60th anniversary next year.

1949 was the year that Red Planet and “Gulf” came out, two stories that anticipated Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s breakout novel from 1961, that first revealed the true Heinlein, even though Putnam forced him to cut out 60,000 words of that novel.   (Those words were later restored in an uncut edition decades later.)  Listening to the uncut version of Red Planet made it very clear that Heinlein hadn’t changed at different points in his career, but merely, more of his personality had been revealed.

There are two Heinlein aspects that we’re dealing with here.  The first, is a fascinating man that was very opinionated.  The second is a story teller.  As a kid, I imprinted on the storytelling aspect.  As an adult I rebelled against the author’s personality poking through the illusion of the storytelling.

Even in the restored edition, Red Planet is a very slight novel.  It’s overwhelming charm is due to the mysterious Martians and Willis, an engaging talking Martian animal.  What captured me as a 12-year-old was the sense of wonder of humans colonizing Mars, something that would fuel my personal fantasies for decades.  I was also charmed and amused by the antics of Willis.  Heinlein’s juvenile novels often had wondrous alien creatures in them.  And the book was fast paced, and full of adventure for boys.

Red Planet is a good book, but it doesn’t compare well with the dazzling creativity of Heinlein’s later juveniles, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and Tunnel in the Sky.  The ancient culture of the Martians, used in both Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, is an impressive creative achievement on first encounter, but doesn’t hold up to long term scrutiny.  The old Martians are like Australian aborigines.  Their culture is exotic, mysterious and mystic, but after the initial wow, few people would want to follow their lifestyle.   We’re a high-tech species, a species that likes to build and expand.

The super-wise Martians that Heinlein created do not wear clothes or even appear to use tools and they do wonders with thoughts alone.  This appears to conflict with Heinlein’s blaster-toting, rocket-riding humans out to colonize every piece of rock in the universe.  And this is further complicated by Heinlein’s constant promotion of revolution, where bold exploring characters sneer at the corruption of law and order stay-put stick-in-the-mud characters.

Now that the revised version of Red Planet is fresh in my mind, I can easily see how its author will come to write Stranger in a Strange Land in the following decade, and eventually evolve into the man who writes The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  The disturbing thing is to contemplate which themes will come to dominate.  From 1949 to 1985 Heinlein seems mostly concerned with who deserves to die, and nudity.  This is grossly unfair to the stories, but I think it’s true.

In the restored edition of Red Planet, 1949 Heinlein portrays his colonists of Mars as wearing little clothes when not needing their pressure suits for outside excursions.  In 1961, one focus of Stranger in Strange Land is shedding of clothes.  And in 1985, Heinlein has all his former favorite characters getting naked together.

Even more disturbing is the theme of who deserves to die.  Heinlein’s characters are often preoccupied with who to kill.  Sometimes, it’s individuals, sometimes it’s groups of people, and sometimes it’s whole planets.  As a kid, this motive for story action was no different from the westerns I loved to watch on TV, but now as a person in late middle age, I find very disturbing.

The hated headmaster Howe is “disappeared” by the Martians, but his only real offense was being a strict school administrator and taking a strange pet away from a student.  Heinlein revered his time at the Navy academy, an institution known for strict rules and administrators, so why make such a straw man of boy’s school principal?  Beecher, a colonial administrator is also a man executed by the Martians whose crime was trying to force the colonists to winter in a harsh climate to save the company money.  Not exactly a capital crime in our capitalistic society.  For being known as a conservative, Heinlein seems to love mob rule when it appears to be revolutionary and led by a pseudo-Patrick Henry.  But not every rebellious horde of unhappy armed men equal the American revolution.

The restored political parts of Red Planet make the story more offensive to me, at least as an adult.  As a kid, I would have just skimmed over the boring bits, and all the exotic Mars life and adventure of skating down Martian canals would made me forget them.  So which is the better edition?  I think Heinlein’s original unedited story is better because of the way he handles what happens to Willis.  Ditto for Podkayne of Mars.  Heinlein’s harsher more realistic endings are better, even for kids.  And I have to accept Heinlein as a whole person, even though I don’t like parts of that whole.

It would be interesting if I could read Red Planet at 56 and not be influenced by over forty years of nostalgia.  If I could, I would savage it.  And not just because we know there’s no life on Mars now, but because so much of the story isn’t logical at all.  Jim and Frank wear plastic pressure suits with only jockey shorts underneath and then skate all day on the canals.  Logic tells me the legs of their suits would have pooled up with sweat, and their skin would have been rubbed raw.  And there was no mention of oxygen bottles, or any kind of consumables to power their suits.

Furthermore, there is no, and I mean none, discussion of adapting to living on Mars.  It’s really like living on Earth, but with less oxygen and air pressure.  They have to kill the Mars equivalent of rattle snakes with blasters instead of six-guns.   The boys attend a boarding school, and the only difference is they wear minimal clothes while inside the pressurized areas.  That isn’t about Mars so much as it’s about Heinlein picturing a future where people don’t wear clothes.

What we need is a boys book as exciting as Heinlein’s juvenile novels about what realistic life would be like for future colonists on Mars.  Heinlein was enchanted with the concept but didn’t want to explore the details.  I can’t blame him for wanting to create exotic intelligent life on Mars back in 1949.  That’s what I admired when I first read the story just about the time the first Mariner space missions flew past Mars and showed that Mars was a dead world like the Moon.  Red Planet remains a simple story about a boy and his pet Martian, and it is charming and entertaining.  Time has hurt the speculation, but not the story.

I tend to think twelve year-olds today discovering this story might still be well entertained, but I hope they would be savvy enough about our knowledge of Mars to know that it’s all a fantasy.  I’d bet that they would ignore the silly trumped-up revolutionary politics, and not even think about whether the rest of the story is realistic.  Only the kids who love to read about real space exploration would have an inkling about how complex a pressure suit would have to be, and silly it would be to live on cold Mars and only wear shorts while inside.  Or how silly it would be to have a revolution with Earth that supplies and pays for all the necessities of life.

Like I said, reading Heinlein for me, is more about studying myself.  As a kid I wanted to run away and live on Mars.  It was my Never-Never Land.  What us fans of classic science fiction must ask ourselves is:  Was science fiction just the fairy tales for 20th century children, or was science fiction meant to be more than that?  Heinlein always said he wrote to pay the mortgage.  Were his Scribner’s books just entertaining stories for mid-century boys that helped him pay his liquor bill?

I took his stories as inspiration about exploring space.  So did a lot of other people.  The red planet is still up there, waiting for us.  There are ancient alien life forms waiting for us to discover them.  To me, the real critical question is:  Will humans ever live on Mars.  Heinlein returned to Mars in story after story.  I study what NASA finds with its robots on Mars, but I keep rereading Heinlein.  Why?

JWH – 11/1/8

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is an old fashion novel of super-science that won the Hugo award in 2006.  It reminds me of War of the Worlds, but not because the stories are alike, but because of their sense of wonder impact.  I really do not want to say anything about what happens in the story, hoping you’ll just try it sight unseen.  I’d even advice you not to read the blurbs on the book.  If you want the story spoiled, follow the title link to Wikipedia, it explains everything.  I’ve read two other books by Wilson, Memory Wire, and Darwinia, and enjoyed them both.

Of course, this puts me in a quandary, because how do I recommend a novel without giving some juicy tidbits to get you hooked?  If you can imagine how readers in 1898 felt after reading War of the Worlds, then think about what an alien invasion of 2005 would be like, except that it’s a totally new take on alien invasions, and with luck you might feel awe like H.G.’s readers at the end of the 19th century.  The scope of Spin also reminds me of the epoch spanning ideas of Olaf Stapledon.  If you’ve happen to have read Greg Egan’s Quarantine, you might think that Spin is less original, but I found it unique enough to admire it’s vast gee-whiz sense of wondrousness.  However, these two novels do need a name for their new sub-genre of alien invasion types.

Science fiction has a reputation for poor characterization, and science fiction writers are often accused by literary types of producing pawns for their plots, and that’s essentially what Wilson has done here, but I have to give him great credit because Tyler Dupree, the first person narrator, is very engaging, even though he is still a plot pawn.  The trouble is science fiction writers think up ideas first, and then figure out what characters would best show off the ideas dramatically.  It’s probably very difficult to create characters in a SF story that don’t feel like straight men setting up gags for the science fictional funny man.  [That would make a great blog entry - a discussion of SF characters that stand on their own.]

In Spin, Wilson has created a story around three children and then follows their very long lives.  Jason and Diane Lawton are twins, but identical they are not.  Jason represents science and Diane religion, while Tyler plays the reporter of their stories, even though he eventually becomes a doctor.  Jason and Diane are rich, and Tyler is poor, and like the plot of Brideshead Revisited, Tyler loves their big house, admires Jason and falls in love with Diane.   If you subtracted the science fiction, you’d have mediocre love story that would make an entertaining potboiler, but since we’re reading a fantastic tale that John W. Campbell would have loved, that doesn’t matter too much, because when it comes down to it, it’s the super science that dazzles.  The characterization is far better than most pulp fiction, and Wilson does a pretty good job developing the family dynamics of the three children and their three parents.

What Robert Charles Wilson has done is imagine science fiction on a big scale, an evolutionary scale of astronomical time, and then invented a gimmick to make it all work in the short life-time of his very human characters.  That’s one pretty fancy writing trick.  Spin is a very satisfying modern SF novel, that well deserves it’s Hugo award.  I recommend it to all science fiction fans.

JWH 10-20-08

Further Adventures with eReader on the iPod touch

For some reason I’m getting more hits on the iPod touch eReader eBook post than anything else I’ve written lately, so I must assume that the iPod touch and eReader are a hit combination.  Since I wrote that post, eReader has come out with version 1.2 that offers many nifty new features and they’re promising 1.3 real soon now.  Also, the eReader.com site, a spin-off from fictionwise.com, seems to be expanding daily, which implies another kind of success.  eReader software isn’t just for the iPod, there’s also versions for Palm, PocketPC, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Windows, Macintosh and OQO systems.

When the Kindle came out stories about it on the blogosphere were more common than stories about Sarah Palin today.  Using the iPod touch and iPhone for an ebook reader hasn’t garnered that much notice.  I prefer the larger screen of the Kindle, but never wanted to carry it around.  The touch/iPhone is designed to commute wherever you go, and wherever you go you can now read your book when you get there.  That’s pretty cool.

The screen of the touch/iPhone is better than PDAs and most other smart phones, so for a portable reading device it does very well in the visual department.  The screen is physically about one fourth to one third the size of a paperback book page, but the number of words varies because you have several font size settings.  Even though the screen is smaller than the Kindle, it’s brighter and sharper.  Overall though, the Kindle’s screen is much nicer to read from because of it’s perfect size.

Flipping pages is much nicer with eReader on the touch/iPhone than with the Kindle or the eBookman I used to have.  You can set eReader to swipe or tap for page turning.  I set mine to tap, so I just touch the right side of the screen to page forward, and the left to go back.  Having a touch screen greatly reduces the need for buttons.

My 1st generation touch has 2 buttons, and the newly released 2nd generation touch has three, adding a volume control and tiny speaker, something I wanted.  I’m quite anxious for another button though, an on/off switch for the Wi-Fi for the iPod touch.  The wireless system drains the battery fast.  My touch will drain in 1-2 days even doing nothing if the wireless is on.  I now have to go through several taps to turn the wireless on or off.  An even more sophisticated solution would be software that turned the wireless on when I sent a request out on the Internet and turned it off after a set period of time.

The iPod touch is about four times heavier than a Nano, and much bigger, so it’s more of an effort to carry around, but still just 4 ounces, or 120 grams.  It fits in my shirt pocket like the Nano, but its very noticeable there, whereas the Nano is unfelt.  I’ve started carrying my touch some, but I’ve got to admit I’d rather carry the Nano.  Whether I carry the touch all the time will depend if I get completely hooked on it.  99% of my use is for listening to audio books, so unless I start using the touch more, I might go back to my Nano.  I think I’ll need several months to grow into the iPod touch, to know if I regularly need all of its features.

The frequent low battery message is what keeps me switching back to the Nano.  I can get a lot more time if I shut off the Wi-Fi, but that’s annoying to keep up with.  Another way to improve battery life is shut off the screen.  This is only good for listening to music and audio books, but eReader does have a feature for showing white text on a black background.  I wonder if that saves energy.  The claimed battery life improvements in the 2nd Generation iPod touch makes me wished I had waited a month to buy a new iPod.  I certainly wouldn’t buy a 1st generation touch now unless it was very cheap.

One way to adapt to the touch’s battery weakness is to buy a cradle and leave it on it whenever I’m not using it, but with the battery supposedly only good for 400-500 full cycles of charging, would that be good for it?   The iPod touch loses it’s charge so fast when the Wi-Fi is on that I’m thinking mine is either defective or it has a serious flaw.  The Kindle, even with the broadband on lasts four or five days.

The iPod touch also does not seem as robust as the Nano.  Upgrading to iTunes 8.0 crashed it completely and I had to do a restore, which took a bit of fiddling to get done.  I kept wondering why the touch was always backing itself up, well now I’m glad it had.  The restore loaded my upgrades, settings, eReader books, and extra applications, but not my music and audio books.

I bought the iPod touch because I wanted walk-around access to the Internet.  I was also thinking of buying the Asus Eee PC for the same reason.  After a few weeks of ownership I’ve learned that I don’t actually need to access the Internet that often when I’m away from my work or home computer.  It is fun to play with the touch while reclining in my La-Z-Boy, but weirdly the best function I’ve found for those idle moments is cleaning out old email.  Browsing the web on the touch’s 3.5″ screen is the coolest I’ve seen on a small device, but it’s not any fun in practicality.  Good for emergency searches.

When it comes down to it, the real use I have for an iPod is audio books.  I spend hours and hours every week listening to audio books, and the Nano is far superior for that task.  The best thing I love about eReader is getting free classic books, but not to read.  When you listen to books you never know how many names and words are spelled.  Having the text on eReader makes a great supplement to audio books.  It’s not something I use often, but it’s very nice.

Audio books have ruined me for reading printed books, so when I do read with my eyes it’s mainly email, RSS feeds and the web pages.  That makes the touch good for email and RSS feeds if they are nearly all text.  HTML email is better read on a big screen.

The iPod touch is a novelty that I may or may not get addicted to carrying around.  Buying it made me glad I didn’t rush out and buy the iPhone.  I love the Internet as seen through my 22″ Samsung LCD.  But anyone who grew up carrying a Gameboy around will probably find the touch a fantastic device.

Jim

Has Reading With My Ears Ruined My Desire To Read With My Eyes?

I have hundreds of unread books sitting on my shelves wagging their tales anxious to be read, but of the 28 books I “read” so far this year, only one was read with my eyes.  And that one, Marsbound by Joe Haldeman, was read as a magazine serial.  Had it been available on audio at the time, like it is now, I wouldn’t have read any printed books this year.  Of the 39 books I read last year, only two were printed.  Before I discovered audio books on digital players through Audible.com in 2002, I read on average 6-12 books a year.  After digital audio, I’m reading 35-55 books each year.

I read more audio books now because, one, I can multitask reading with walking, driving, doing the dishes, eating alone, and other quiet mindless activities.  Second, I listen to more books than I read because I’m enjoying them more.  When I was kid I was a real bookworm, often reading a book a day for weeks at a time.  I discovered a lot of fun books back then, but I have since reread some of those books on audio and discovered I missed a lot from reading too fast and poorly.  Third, audio books got me out of my science fiction rut and into a wider range of literature because listening gives me the patience to read books with my ears that I would never take the time to read with my eyes.  Fourth, and this is the most important, I think I experience books better through audio because I’ve discovered I’m not a very good reader, and the quality of audio book narrators have constantly improved in recent years and I flat out prefer listening to a great reader than doing a botched up job myself.

Now, the the question is:  Has reading with my ears destroyed my desire to read with my eyes?  When the seventh Harry Potter book came out last year I raced through it like everyone else, so I know I can still enjoy eyeball reading, but the whole time I wished I had waited for the audio edition to arrive from Amazon. 

To force myself to read a book with my eyes, I bought Incandescence, a new novel by Greg Egan.  I was in the mood for some cutting edge science fiction and it wasn’t available on audio.  And, I am enjoying reading it.  I read slower than I used to – that’s something listening has taught me.  But as I go through the sentences I can’t help but think this book would sparkle far greater if I was hearing it read by a fine reader.

So, have audio books become a crutch?  Or have I just discovered a better way of experiencing books and have become addicted?  If EMP killed off all the iPods in the world I think I’d want to try and recreate audio books in the old fashion way.  I’d want someone to read to me, or I’d want to learn how to read aloud and try to dramatically present stories like the narrators I love so much to hear.

Yet, if this return-to-the-19th-century catastrophe happened I might end up reading more books because all the computers and televisions would be out of commission too.  I started reading like crazy in junior high school when I outgrew Gilligan’s Island and I wanted to break away from my family unit.  I had lots of time and even though I had plenty to do, I preferred the laziness of reading.

In our society, literacy is a virtue, but being a kid gorging himself on science fiction does not confer a lot of social status.  It was plain old escapism.  If iPods and Audible had been invented in 1965 I would have grown up listening to books, and I would have listened to better books than I had been reading.

I’m currently listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  That’s one book I would never read with my eyes, but if I had read it and The Age of Innocence at 13, I would have had a much better understanding of those scary junior high girls.  I think I’m a much better person at 56 for reading Wharton.  That wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for audio books, and I was an English major during my college years.  I had a hard time reading classic novels – I kept hoping they’d assign fun modern novels, but they didn’t.  If I had gotten to hear the classics back then I would have been a much better literature student.  I know this is true because when I took three Shakespeare classes I listened to the plays on LPs and aced my exams, plus I admired the writing so much more.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting you should give up reading with your eyes.  I think many people are better than I am at reading.  I just discovered late in life, at around 50, that I was a lousy-ass reader.  When I do read now, I do try harder try to hear what I’m seeing.  That requires reading slower and thinking about the dramatic quality of the sentences in front of me.  I wish I could read like Jeff Woodman or Jim Dale, but I don’t.

Last night I pulled down several novels that I’ve been meaning to read and read a few pages from each.  I admired the writing but I realized I would never read them.  Middlemarch, Vanity Fair and Call It Sleep are just too dense for me to read with my eyes.  I brought them to work today and put them on our book give-away table.  They disappeared in a few minutes and I hope they have found good homes.

Audio books have greatly enriched my life.  I truly don’t think they have ruined my urge to read with my eyes, because that urge was already fading.  Without audio books I’d probably continue reading 6-12 books a year for the rest of my life.  Before I turned fifty I was thinking I might only read another 200 books before I died, and wondered why I owned 1,200 and was buying more all the time.  I’ve already listened to more than that planned 200, so audio books have already expanded my reading lifetime. 

My desire to “read” books is greater than any other time in my life, but strangely I’m going to stop buying books, ones printed on paper, that is, because they will sit on my shelves, unread, and I’m feeling way too guilty to add any more lonely unread pages.

Jim

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