Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cultural Observations of an iPhone User

The advent of mobile devices not only allows us to be more connected, it shifts how we perceive activities like reading, and how we think of other devices, like computers. For example, two things I've noticed since becoming an iPhone addict:

Thing 1: When you read things on the iPhone that you used to read on your computer or in analog (a newspaper or a book, for example), you're still perceived as doing something much more frivolous and distracted, like fragmentedly texting or obsessively checking email. You're perceived as being unfocused on the world around you rather than focused on a piece of content. Tim and I noticed this once when he was reading a book and I was reading on the Kindle app, and he kept wanting to tell me to stop obsessively checking my email or something--and he had to keep reminding himself that I was actually engrossed in a Dickens novel.

Thing 2: My home computer has become much more fun, because much more of my stress-related email checking has moved to the iPhone, while use of my computer has basically degenerated into watching Battlestar Galactica DVDs (and writing the odd blog musing).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Physical Book in 50 Years

Here's a metaphor for how we'll think of books in fifty years: like candles.

We use candles now to mark special occasions, for a sense of cozy old-school nostalgia, for atmospherics, for decor, and in a pinch for their original use when the power goes out. But most of the time, when you really want to get something done, you flip a light switch.

In the future, physical books will also be used to mark special occasions (they'll be souvenirs) and to decorate your apartment and for atmospherics and nostalgia, and in a pinch when your computer or portable data device is on the fritz. But most of the time, when you're really going to want to get something read, you'll just turn on your Kindle/iPhone/magic-electronic-gizmo.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Newer, Bigger Kindle

Okay, I'm going to put out there right now that Kindle's newer bigger self is not going to work. I seem to be in the minority, so let me be clear about what I mean by that: It will not sell as well as the original-sized Kindle, and it is not the way of the future.

The ways in which it will be moderately successful are as follows: As an entrance into the Boomer market (i.e., people who find the iPhone and even the original Kindle too small). What's going to hold it back here somewhat is the price. For folks who are already slightly skeptical about digital, $500 is a pretty big chunk of change. It will also be somewhat useful for folks who depend a lot on graphics--students who use textbooks, professionals who use manuals. For everyone named above, it's an interim step backwards, opening up the market for more users to become comfortable with the technology that already exists.

It's also a threat to Apple, because it's an interim step in the direction of a new kind of laptop technology: something like this could be your new computer someday. Make it a touchscreen, with a touchscreen keyboard, and you could run a pretty full OS. Apple is already responding to this threat with their Mediapad. If the Kindle goes in this direction, that's the one way that this thing will become a big player.

But I'm not sure Amazon is going in that direction because they seem pretty set on thinking of this as a *reading* device. And that's the real problem. The media device of the future is going to have to be an all-in-one, like the iPhone is.

The all-in-one mindset is important for two reasons. First, portability: if the logic behind the Kindle is that you don't want to carry around multiple books, then you also don't want to carry around multiple devices, and you probably don't want to carry around a big one. Portability is a key factor in mobile devices, and this Kindle just ain't it. If you're in the general market (not Boomer, not infographics-focused) and you wanted a digital reading device badly enough to pay that much money for it, you would have tried out the original Kindle, and by now you'd be used to it, and so why ever would you get something bigger?

Second, because we always want more functionality, not less. Why would I want to carry around a huge slab of computer that can only do one thing, when I could carry around something that could also act as a GPS, as a phone, as a Red-Sox-game-score tracker? I already expect more of my mobile devices. I think this is really important: if Amazon is trying to present a disruptive innovation (something that does less but reaches a broader market), they've got their price wrong. And if they're just trying to present a new innovation, then they are just innovating by looking in the rear view mirror.

So fire away. Why am I wrong?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The New Role of Publishers

Umair Haque makes a fascinating point in his most recent blog post when he urges the New York Times to acquire Twitter in part to "help the NYT rebuild detailed information about people, products, services, and news." In other words, the NYT becomes not just a source for information published by the NYT, but an aggregator of information provided by everybody.

What if that’s what publishers need to do today? Not just to provide content, but to help their customers share content between each other as well?

While some publishers are beginning to do this in a rudimentary way--OUP has a blog on which readers can converse through comments; HarperCollins has various reading groups--nobody has yet set this as their new business model.

You wouldn't only have to have discussion forums; you'd have to have space for people to upload their own work and the capability for your editorial team to sort it and comment on it somehow, so readers know what their getting (after all, one of the most important functions of the editorial team is as gatekeeper to good information). But a lot of the work would just have to be automated.

Is this the world we're heading to?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

…from Quirk Books (publishers of “Worst-Case Scenarios” and nothing else I have heard of) has sold almost 14K copies since its release on Saturday! Perhaps more amazingly, only one of those was to me!

What is Quirk doing right about word-of-mouth book marketing? I initially heard about the P&P&Z weeks ago on NPR's “Wait Wait Don't Tell Me” and one of my coworkers reports it was covered on the BBC world news this morning. I certainly Twittered about it when I preordered, and got the most RT’s I’ve ever had (ok, like 3, but still). I've even written a blog post about it! (Ooh, so meta!)

Is this just a case of good author track record (I hear Austen’s pretty hot right now…and for the past two centuries), a catchy title and idea, or are they actually doing something other publishers can emulate (perhaps in their own nice, brand-appropriate way)? Check out the publisher’s website - http://irreference.com/ - they’ve got plenty of space for reader feedback, tons of tschotschkes, quizzes, and much more. It's not all stuff that every publisher can do from a brand perspective (not all of us are publishing irreverent humor books), but there's certainly community-building inspiration here for all of us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Out of Africa

Just saw "Out of Africa" for the first time. It's a stunning film. This has something to do with the combination of Meryl Streep's slow, quiet voice and the expansive, serene vistas of Africa.

Yes, it's also to do with the attacks of lions and with Robert Redford's slow, quiet looks that hide a soul afraid of being caged in. And of course Karen and Dennis's argument before the fireplace cuts to the dilemmas of the 'plot' of the movie: trust, independence, freedom, dependability. Those are the human problems the film presents. Very nice and interesting to talk about, but not what makes the movie so perplexing.

The film's achievement is the lasting impression of peace it gives us despite the incredible disruptions at the end of its narrative. The answers to those human question are presented not by the unfolding plot but by those vistas, by that voice. The serenity of green and the roll of Karen's slightly labored lilt are what make you close your eyes after the movie ends and keep imagining it is still going on. Karen has gone out of Africa, but Africa has not left her, nor us.

From our greatest losses--the film tells us, reminds us, enacts for us--something, an overwhelming something, lasts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Charging for the News

Last night's Daily Show included an interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the recent Time cover story "How to Save Your Newspaper."

Isaacson practically got laughed off the stage with some of his old-fashioned ideas, but they're actually ones that I've come back around to recently.

It all revolves around the idea that one of these days we're going to wake up and realize that professional journalism is a) crumbling before our eyes, and b) the foundation of a stable democracy. Don't believe me? Look! A big stone tablet at the Newseum in DC even says so:

Professional journalism is crumbling before our eyes because we refuse to pay for it. I refuse to pay for it. Remember the New York Times's venture "TimesSelect?" When we all thought paying for just the op-eds and the sports section was ridiculous, and so they quit trying? And when was the last time you bought a print paper? Jon Stewart may have admitted that holding a print newspaper in your hand is just more satisfying, but I doubt that many people under the age of 25 would agree with him. It's these trends that are leading to the massive layoffs at the Times, at the Globe, at the Tribune, at NPR...the list goes on.

Of course, citizen journalists are all the rage right now, from CNN's i-report to bloggers on every topic to people who digg or del.ici.ous or Share stories. I think those folks and these media add a lot to journalism that was lacking before. I just don't think that they're a viable replacement for professional, paid journalists.

That's what it comes down to: paying the guys to go to Baghdad (as Isaacson said), who spend years digging into Madoff's past, who cover the beleaguered state of our crumbling urban schools. Stuff that might be missed by the i-Reports, stuff that takes more hours in a day than a part-time blogger has to devote pro bono. Whether or not the journalists are paid through large, authoritative institutions, they need to be paid.

We need to start getting used to that idea, and we need to figure out how to pay them. (Because even I am not going to pretend that paper newspapers are going to make a comeback.)

Isaacson actually brought up a good idea that I've been thinking about for a while: microcharges. It's like iTunes--you can pay a tiny fee per article that you read online. So you don't need to pay $14.95 a month or whatever--you pay for how much you use, but in small enough increments that it doesn't hit you where it hurts each time you click.

Jon Stewart countered that news articles are different from music in that you're much less likely to go back and consume that content again and again, though. It's a good point. Is it enough to keep people from buying?

My hope is that we realize how valuable professional journalism is before it's gone altogether. My sense is that the crux moment is coming: will we recognize it and suck up the price when it's here?

Disagreement: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/opinion/10kinsley.html

Monday, February 9, 2009

Becoming Un-Jane

"Becoming Jane" ended with a caption that said, "Jane Austen went on to write six of the greatest novels in the English Language." The suckiness that goes into that useless and wrong capitalization of "Language" is reflected throughout the movie. I know, surprise surprise--listen, I like to give these things a chance.

If one put aside historical realities, the movie became merely one of those vapid creations that so often pass for romantic comedies. It was chock-full of approbation for disobeying parents, disregarding prudence, and generally disavowing reason and intelligence.

If you didn't put aside historical realities, of course, you'd find lots more things to be offended by: the number of times Jane takes off her hat in public, how she runs around and plays cricket with the boys, how she's making out with her boytoy beneath that tree in some lady's garden.

The best thing about the movie is that it didn't end happily. I don't mean that vindictively, I swear. I mean that the (historically-forced) ending alone shows a sense of independence from the typical romantic-comedy script--that sense of independence which Jane (in theory) values so very much. That it is missing from the rest of the film--with Jane falling unselfconsciously as she does for the village heartthrob and following him stumblingly from one end of England to the other--is perhaps not a surprise, but no less aggravating as a result. We are left with a sense that this isn't the true Jane, the one with the wit and the shrewd whistle-blowing on middle-high society. The one that's more Dr. Johnson than the Misses Brontë.

If it's this wrong about its heroine, how do we know how much of Jane's history the movie presents is actually true? How can we use it to add any kind of zing to our reading of her novels? What's the point of this movie???

True, I am sure that Jane wrote her heroines to act as she *wished* she acted, and not as she in reality did. Lizzie Bennett's wit is sharper and Eleanor Dashwood's heart is steadier than Jane's, most likely. Jane herself was likely correcting her foibles by the successes of her leading ladies. But if that were the point that this movie were trying to make, it needed to make it more deliberately and not, as I suspect, by pure accident.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Interested in the stimulus just passed by the House? check it out here: readthestimulus.org

Okay, so I've only made it through the first 150 pages so far--500 more to go. But in the meantime, some preliminary points of interest:

- p. 12, lines 1-5: "Section 1109. Prohibited Uses. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available in this Act may by used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool." Seriously, no zoos?

- p. 14, lines 1-9: "Section 1112. Additional Assurance of Appropriate Use of Funds. None of the funds provided by this Act may be made available to the State of Illinois, or any agency of the State, unless (1) the use of such funds by the State is approved in legislation enacted by the State after the date of the enactment of this Act, or (2) Rod R. Blagojevich no longer holds the office of Governor of the State of Illinois." Of course Blago found a way to get himself immortalized.

- All plans for use of the funds will be accessible to public viewing at Recovery.gov, a site to be set up and maintained by the newly named Accountability and Transparency Board for the bill.

- $18,500,000,000 for energy efficiency and renewable energy!!!

So far, so good, imho.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Remembering, and Calling

In his short story "Pigeon Feathers," John Updike's fourteen-year-old character David is terrified of death: "a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you are drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt into your face. There you will be forever...and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called."

The story is about faltering faith in God, and its desperate ending does nothing to convince us that Updike disagrees with his young mouthpiece's doubt. David has just cruelly shot a handful of pesky albeit beautiful pigeons when the story concludes abruptly: "He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

Compared with this ugly brashness, David's earlier description of human death is much more palatable. And while it is true that every poet and perhaps every human legitimately fears being eventually forgotten in death, in pronouncing this fear, Updike also announces its remedy: the remembrance and "calling" of the living. Just as Wordsworth pleaded with his sister to "remember me and these my exhortations," I think that what Updike does here in effect is to remind us of what makes us most human (and least pigeonly): that we care about and can remember each other, even across the bridge of death.

Updike suggests that those actions are meaningful not just to ourselves, but perhaps (we can only imagine) to the dead as well. And so it is a human strength, and not a weakness, that when we gather around the "long hole" of a loved one, we choose to overcome the ugly brashness of death by engaging in the acts of remembering, and of calling.

My experiences of the last year have certainly informed my re-reading of Updike here, as those of you who know me probably suspect. But it is two deaths in the past week which have brought me specifically to put pen to paper (or fingertip to keyboard, I suppose), as friends, acquaintances, journalists, and I remember a coworker's father, and Updike himself.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Lives of Others

Just watched "The Lives of Others."[*Spoiler alert! If you just want my recommendation, you have it--go put this on your Netflix queue.] I spent the film dreading the ending more and more; while I couldn't help but hope for some sense of human, concrete closure, I feared it too: how could it not be contrived, set against the gritty randomness, the blindness, the cold East-German reality of the rest of the film?

But instead of being incompatably precious, the end of the movie forcefully served as an appropriately nagging reminder of the other lives lost throughout, in the twin senses of those who were killed, and those whose lives in the end belonged to the East German state and not to themselves.

It's a movie about one-way surveillance, and in the final minutes the tables turn: Georg is following his one-time Stasi surveillance man Wiesler, but, like Wiesler, he cannot bring himself to actually meet the man. And so the two are left to "meet" only in the dedication of Georg's new book as Wiesler's eyes read the note of thanks to his code name. The dedication reminds us of Wiesler's failures as much as his strengths; it stands in the place where a dedication to Christa-Maria should have been had things not gone so horribly wrong; and above all, like the surveillance that dominates the film as a whole, it is at the same time intensely impersonal and intensely personal.

It's a great ending that can simultaneously fulfill the hopeful human need of the watcher, and yet exist in harmony with the realism that leads up to it. It's optimistic without being trite: it suggests that there is, after all, some hope to life, in whatever strange and demeaned form it may take--from the colorful graffiti on the now-open Brandenburg Gate to the obsessive actions of a grey operative watching and being touched by the lives of others.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Immediate Impressions of the Inauguration

There are no words to capture the experiences of the last few days. But you know me--I'll try.

Masses of tourists descending on the city; whole streets cut off to cars for the pedestrians to take over; taking in history through a new lens at the Newseum; helping a gay couple from LA take their Christmas card in front of the Capitol ("Aren't you guys excited?! Tomorrow's the first day of a new world!"); traipsing down the Mall in the gathering dusk and cold; everyone happy; the surge of enthusiasm and engagement among the African-American community; the calls of the kitsch-salesmen--"Obama! get your buttons! hand warmers! t-shirts!"; the bedazzled everything; the foam fingers--with two fingers up for peace; the lights of MSNBC, of ABC, of CBS; the lights of the Capitol; the Washington memorial fading into evening mist; a delicious dinner thanks to our hosts; a beer out on the town with crowds of friends meeting faraway friends; getting up early early early in the dark, with cries already ringing out in the streets; a free Obama donut on the way to the Metro; the "Obama" chant ringing through the halls of Union Station as we headed to the Capitol; the people, people, people everywhere; people streaming in every gate, walking on every closed street and onramp; the sense of looming hopelessness among folks who couldn't make it onto the Mall before the gates closed; standing in the back of the room as we watched the ceremony, able to watch everyone's faces and hear the cheers on the Mall at the same time; the tears on everyone's faces during the swearing-in and the speech; the chopper lifting Bush up over the Capitol to cheers and waves of (mostly-)good-natured good riddance; the frigid march back to Dupont up Mass Ave. through the throngs; swapping stories with Jacob and Heather; the sun-filled and quietly happy and tired bus on the way home; that sense of cold and tired and happy that settles on you after a day of skiing--and apparently after a day of inauguration.