27 Jul

A Partial eBooks Features Wishlist

The following was a comment submitted to a video blog entry proposing enhancements for the iBooks reader on the iPad. I’m also publishing it here, just in case (and because I tried to put some thought into it):

While I love my books and am very interested in the future of books in a paperless UI, I cringed at almost every idea in this video, tending to agree with the list posted (in comments) by Brian (around book stats, reader privacy, social networking, resource linking, images). Few of the ideas proposed in the video seem to leverage ebooks in helping readers make their way through the book and possibly in the world or, where they do, they seem restrictive, trivial, or intrusive.

Too many suggestions I see are “get on the bandwagon” social networking applications (which tend to sequester people in very controlled and nonsubversive experiences–the opposite of the reading experience). Most people read as a solitary activity, for pleasure, enlightenment, or requirement. They don’t belong to book groups (and even book group members don’t want to be supervised). People who lend books or share reading experiences do ask others where they are in the book–not typically out of a need to micromanage but because they really want to talk about the book. You don’t need a big brother interface for that. And, if you lend an “ebook” why do you need it back? My god, what a DRM nightmare!

Instead, link books to a range of outside information sources (giving me defaults and the ability to add or change sources). Instead of funneling me into the giant tosspot social networking environs we have today, help me find where people have expanded on the book’s ideas or setting and published that work–whether it’s textual, visual, or oral. If the book includes geography, show me sources on those parts of the world today and, if applicable, in the story’s historical setting. Don’t place those links in situ (or give the reader the option between that and back of the book)–not everyone wants or benefits from the distraction.

Provide a friendly query interface to customize the book–if it’s a reference on health, show me the parts related to a condition, limited to N degrees of separation.

Bundle with human voices reading aloud and the ability to add my own. Accept voice commands–“read that again”–“go back to”–“help me find”–“learn more about”…

If illustrations are present, add optional unique and subtle ways of highlighting interesting complexity, relationships, or details.

Something else: writers who provide rich experiences have minds like magpies. It’ll take some thoughtful filtering to link to key outside resources rather than known resources about everything experienced or behind ideas in the book. Possibly a combination of the reader selecting and the book suggesting (helping with discovery). Otherwise, you’ll quickly and literally be lost in a good plot.

Bottom line, (unspoken) jokes and wishes about adaptively intelligent primers aside, develop ideas that create broad opportunities and solve problems worth solving. Write them up as requirements (I realize that the requirements for the brief list above are implied and should be stated.) And publish the hell out of them. Better yet, build a few of them yourself, if you can.

21 Jul

Precious

Writing that sparkles brilliant in the early morning dew, sure to swell the hearts of readers as it has that of the writer, is inevitably precious and should never see high noon. Thank god the late morning me who shows up for the shift change carries a fileting knife.

21 Jul

David Mitchell Reading

If the writer David Mitchell comes to town, attend. I went last night to his reading at Powells, a tour stop to promote his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet. I expected a calm and sort of serious and intellectual author, based on the intricacies of structure in his earlier books (I’ve read number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and Black Swan Green) and his careful weaving of historical detail, character, style, and plot.

Instead, we got a skinny, boyish, enthusiastic 41 year old cross between Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, and Neil Gaiman (without the black clothing), in t-shirt and jeans, overly caffeinated, jet lagged, giddy from meeting Ursula Le Guin just prior to the reading (which was packed to overflowing), and my god funny. I called Debby afterward and told her I wished she’d been able to attend–no previous experience with his work was required to enjoy the hell out of the evening. He was also very sweet to a woman with a crying baby, insisting almost desperately that she stay–partially because he loved babies and partially because he missed his own very much.

It was also a lesson in reading performance. He started out slow, a little stuttery (he described himself as a “stuttering English introvert”), but the longer he read, the more he fell into character with believable Dutch and Japanese accents. (He lived in Japan for 8 years and Holland for several years.) He joked that his worst accent was American English and that he sometimes has to speak in caricature to be understood.

By being himself and by charming the audience, he probably does more for his book sales than most PR campaigns.

Of course there were people asking about his writing process, which had him scratching his head, then coming up with practical if not roundabout answers, including a comparison between writing a first novel and losing one’s virginity–where you look back on it and wonder what the fuss was all about. In response to a question about how the structure of his novels have steadily simplified, he described an index of style from Murakami to Marilynne Robinson, from the more clinical and highly structured to “human mud,” and that the story of human mud (relationships and emotional turmoil) did not need or want complex structure. His stories were steadily becoming less about (multidimensional) castles and more about mud.

A few quotes:

He saw Powells as “this great Borgesian City with little outposts of Portland attached.”

“The soul is a verb, not a noun.” Paraphrased from a Japanese character in his latest work.

“Real people’s misery is what novelists eat, really.”

“This cup of tea was kindly made for me about 2 hours ago–it has 2 tea bags in it–it’s like Guinness now.” (followed by smacking his lips)

About research and detail: “Novelists require a magpie mind.”

In summing up part of UKLG’s intro to the revised edition of Left Hand of Darkness, on writing for readers (which he read), he said, “I think this means, the [reader’s] Eyeball has an Eardrum.”

He would make a great Dr. Who.

13 Jul

Ludwig and Herbert, together again

Symphony #8, with Von Karajan conducting a big rich performance from the Berlin Philharmonic, would move a deaf man. After 20 years, it still lifts the fog from my head and my heart to my throat.

That is all, and plenty.

Followup: The tune serendipitously and, for me, appropriately queued to follow #8 was Joan Osborne singing Hallelujah, her own song (not the great Leonard Cohen epic that gives listeners an emotional hard-on as they envision their own funeral). Joan eased me back to the modern world.

07 Jul

Shedding

We have a fairly large and abundant side yard that’s been begging for a shed since we bought our house 8 years ago. The center of our yard is cut into a miniature baseball diamond and filled with thick clover (home to the buzzing bees); edged with dwarf fruit trees (plum, apple, fig), blueberry bushes, grapes (soon), and clumps of rosemary; and bordered by a little urban creek (seasonal camp to a tribe of those thumbnail-sized, cannon-voiced burrowing frogs). I could show you that yard, but for all that, without a shed, this article on sheds–especially the shed on slide 1–is much more interesting.

Author Neil Gaiman also has a shed to envy documented here. Philip Pullman did his best work to date in a shed (I saw a photo of the inside once, but can’t find the URL.) The number of creators who’ve leveraged sheds is long, and most are unsung. The shed is and always has been the urban man’s (or woman’s) quick getaway–whether it’s a “writing hut” or studio or just a place to putter. As kids, we start with the playhouse or a hideout, even the hollow core of a hedge or cleverly camouflaged lean-to of tree trunks, sticks, and branches–someplace private and even defensible that blended into the natural world. As an adult, I don’t want to hide my shed: I want to be seen in it and to stand back and admire it. The shed is a symbol of my success, house of creativity, and a statement of privacy–there works a private person surely creating or puttering up something grand!

What’s keeping me from building a shed? Cost of materials. My brother’s a fine carpenter who would be more than willing to help, but we have too many things to fix or replace first around our late-70’s home; features or structures that–in traditional suburban development style–were never meant to last quite as long as they have.

However, I have hope. In a previous post, I mentioned that my wife Deborah (there was a typo where I wrote “my life” that I should have left in), plans like the ancient Mandarins. She’ll be sympathetic to my shed–it’ll give her more free space in the house–and will help me put a long term financial plan in place to gain it.

07 Jul

Busker

I ran across this young busker with his accordion at lunch time today, on NW 9th between Couch and Davis, just inside the bay door of West End Auto Body. He played well, making the sidewalk tables at the old Fuller’s diner across the street feel like an outdoor French cafe. He looks about the same age as my youngest son, Noah (who is 11).

Photo taken (with my crappy phone camera) and used with permission of the boy and, via nod, one of the shop mechanics. Note his foot planted firmly on his money hat.

07 Jul

Lawn Fever

Sozzled by constant lawn care responsibilities? No more scissors for your grass, Judy! Modern lawnsters use the Brin Pulsating Lawn Shaver®, with Touch-n-Go® technology to shave more blades with every stroke. Neighbor ladies will give your man the approving nod when they see his perfect grass, so keep him on a leash! The programmable Pulsonic Edge Guard® accessory keeps your sod a sharp one mm off walks and drives, and creates an invisible fence against pesky intruders. It’s a lawn so perfect it’ll confound a cat!

Reprinted from spring 2008, in recognition of Lawn Care Season.

06 Jul

Super Food


Dear Broccoli,

Yes, it’s phat to eat a good breakfast, and recent studies show that breakfast should be the fattest meal of the day (healthy fats!), skinnying down to dinner. My son Noah, 11, would agree. He’s up most mornings by 7, disagreeably cheerful, hugging his mother and I and telling us we’re the best parents in the world before he heads downstairs to whip up some eggs (and recently, egg beaters) and cereal and the occasional toaster waffle (yes, we can live with that).

Sophie, 5, wants nothing to do with breakfast most mornings and, if we’re not attentive, is a basket case by 11 AM, when her mom is able to boost her blood sugar with a little yogurt or peanut butter toast to interest her in lunch. Sophie used to eat a banana for breakfast but now only wants to draw faces on them with markers and use them as puppets (she mimics Banana perfectly). Thanks for that.

We’ll take any advice you might offer, especially with a kid-friendly back beat. I hear the 4 minute timer chiming–time to press the coffee and wrangle my daughter.

Thanks,

Voice of Dad

This was a “Voice of Dad” blog entry written for broccoliandbanana.com. We’re rethinking some of the site’s features, so I’m reposting some of my entries here.