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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Anime Movie Corner
I have been woefully neglectful of anime over the past year and a half or so, but I've still occasionally taken in a movie here or there, and after this year's very nice The Secret World of Arrietty, I threw a few Anime movies I've been meaning to catch up with in my Netflix Queue. Here are some assorted thoughts on each:
  • Summer Wars - From the team that brought us The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I had high hopes for this one, and for the most part, it hits the mark (the Otakusphere also seems pretty enamored with it). It certainly inherits the former film's knack for good pacing, and it displays a good balance between simple, heartfelt drama and more fantastical framing elements. In this case, the drama is derived from our math nerd hero Kenji and his schoolboy crush on Natsuki. When Natsuki makes a cryptic request for help during summer vacation, Kenji jumps at the opportunity. It seems Natsuki is from an influential, if not particularly wealthy family, and they're all gathering together to celebrate the matriarch's 90th birthday. Natsuki wants Kenji to pretend to be her fiance in order to please her grandmother. This side of the story makes for a sorta comedy of errors, with a stack of misfortune continually piling up on Kenji, until he starts to fight back.
    Natsuki and Kenji share a moment
    The more fantastical element of the story is a ridiculously connected social network called Oz. It is very reminiscent of Stephenson's Metaverse from Snow Crash, though I guess you could say that Oz is what Second Life wishes it could be... and it's also an object lesson on why such a centralized system is improbable and foolish. As portrayed in the movie, Oz has over billion users, and the system provides an infrastructure for all aspects of life, from commerce and banking to socializing and gaming to government services. It's a comprehensive network, and it can be accessed from just about anywhere (i.e. computers, phones, televisions, other appliances, etc...). And it's centralized, so when something goes wrong, things get reallly hairy out here in meatspace.

    The crux of the story arises when Kenji, who spends his free time as an admin in Oz, gets a mysterious message consisting entirely of a sequence of numbers. Being a math nerd who is clearly in over his head when pretending to be Natsuki's fiance, he relishes the opportunity to solve a more orderly problem, which he does. But then, something bad starts to happen. It seems that the problem he solved has allowed someone to start hacking Oz accounts... using Kenji's avatar (I won't discuss exactly who this is, but I will say that it fits with the Japanese relationship with technology... and in this case, of course, it's all the fault of Americans). This does not improve his reputation with Natsuki's family.
    A look inside Oz
    I won't get into more details after that, but it's a really fun story. If, that is, you can get past the absurdity of Oz's overly-connected monopoly on life. I have to admit that the premise of Oz bothered me at first, but once I got past that, things proceeded well from there. We're treated to a very nice family dynamic, including the wonderful grandmother character, who utilizes her own low-tech social network to bring her family (and perhaps the country) together during a crisis. The romance at the heart of the story is well done, as is the conflict in Oz. Visually, it's a gorgeous and inventive movie, and that certainly helps with the pacing. Overall, it totally won me over, despite some misgivings at the heart of the premise. ***
  • Sword of the Stranger - This is a movie that I don't really remember adding to my queue (nor where I saw the recommendation, as it's not typical Otakusphere material, and thus I can't find any real references to it there), but I'm glad I did, as it ended up being a very entertaining, if a bit harrowing, experience. The story is rather simplistic: a young Japanese boy named Kotaro is being hunted by a group of Chinese swordsmen for mysterious reasons. While fleeing, Kotaro and his dog run across a nameless Ronin, and a... fatherly? brotherly? relationship develops between them. The Ronin is quite talented, but is haunted by a life of violence, and does not want to fight. As the villains close in on our heroes, he has to make a choice: flee or fight?
    Sword of the Stranger
    So it's a premise that isn't expanding any horizons, but the visual style of the film and the way the action sequences are constructed certainly make up for any shortcomings on the story front. That being said, I did find the villains interesting, as well as the nationalities of various characters. There are Chinese in the film, and I believe they're speaking in both Mandarin and Japanese at times (not really that familiar with either language, but that's the impression I got), and then there's the "Western" swordsman who travels with the villains. He's a force of nature, taking on all comers, but often bored by their paltry resistance. His goal seems less focused on hunting down the child than on finding a worthy opponent (which he does, in the form of the aforementioned Ronin). Again, not sure what the significance of all these nationalities means, but I feel like there's probably something there. It is quite a graphically violent movie, bloody and grim at times, especially towards the end of the film, but the movie does an excellent job establishing stakes and putting our heroes through their paces. ***
  • Paprika - Another movie that doesn't seem to appear much in the Otakusphere, and again, I don't remember where I found the recommendation. I have mixed feelings about the movie, and I have to admit that I may not have given it an entirely fair shake. I watched it in two sittings, with the first one being late at night when I probably wasn't in any condition to give the film the level of attention it warrants. It's basically about how a new psychological device allows people to enter into one another's dreams, and then how that technology starts to break down. Paprika is one of the characters avatars, a redheaded superhero in the world of dreams, but a straightlaced psychologist out here in the real world. The film is visually spectacular, but the blurry line between dreams and reality gets to be a bit bewildering. You can almost never tell where you are or what's really going on. Again, I feel like this is a movie that demands multiple viewings (or at least, a more attentive viewing than I gave it) in order to break down what's really happening. My initial reaction was one of interest that was ultimately not very well fulfilled. I enjoyed my time with the movie and was never bored, but I wasn't particularly blown away by the story, which seemed fragmented and unclear.
    The film was apparently a big influence on Christopher Nolan's Inception, and there may be some common DNA between the two films, but Paprika's dreams are decidedly more dreamlike (i.e. uncanny and shifting and strange). There are some visual motifs that probably demand some sort of symbolic analysis, but again, I wasn't really up to that task upon first viewing. Again, we've got a story that explores Japan's uncomfortable relationship with technology, a theme that seems to run across a lot of postwar Japanese films and television (for obvious reasons, though this movie doesn't resort to direct mushroom cloud symbolism or anything). Ultimately, I'm not entirely sure the film worked for me, but even if it didn't, I'm still impressed by the ambition here. Call it an interesting failure at worst, and it may be even better than I'm making it out to be. It's certainly a movie I'd like to check out again sometime... At the very least, they tried to do a lot of interesting things!
And that about covers it for now. I have a few series in my Netflix queue, but I'm not sure if or when I'll get to them. The only one I see in my Watch Instantly queue is Samurai 7, which has been on the list for a while and appeals to my love of the original Seven Samurai (and the many riffs on the same story).
Posted by Mark on April 29, 2012 at 08:09 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Recent Podcastery
I like podcasts and listen to many different ones, but it seems that the ones that I actually look forward to are few and far between. Here are a few recent additions to the rotation:
  • Extra Hot Great - This has been my favorite recent discovery, and over the past couple months, I think I've burned my way through their entire archive (80 episodes, plus a crapton of "Mini" episodes). Great personalities and commentary, a solid format with some inventive segments, and plenty of fun. A typical episode starts with a quick discussion of a recent TV series or movie (incidentally, tons of spoilers, so be forewarned), followed by some miscellaneous segments (my favorites being "I am not a crackpot" where people lay out their crackpot ideas, and "The most awesome thing I saw on television this week" in which Kim Reed gives a hysterical plot summary of the most ridiculous shows that she apparently watches a lot of), and then The Canon, in which someone presents a single television episode for induction into the Extra Hot Great Canon. The Canon is a surprisingly well rounded affair, with lots of variety and really in-depth discussions. The folks on the podcast are actually quite discerning in their judgement, and it's always interesting listening. Each podcast ends with a "Game Time" segment, during which you realize that these people know way more about television than you (or, well, me). It's more television focused than my usual preferred podcasts, but I love it anyway. Very fun and interesting stuff. Highly recommended!
  • Onion AV Club Reasonable Discussions - The Onion somewhat recently revamped their podcast and it was really great. They discuss music, movies, and television, and they're usually pretty insightful folks. They don't quite have a big format like Extra Hot Great, but it's still an interesting podcast. Alas, they seem to be on something of a hiatus right now (no podcast in about a month). I hope they do bring it back though, as it was solid.
  • Slate's Culture Gabfest - I think this might be the most pretentious thing I have ever heard, but it's actually pretty approachable, even if they sometimes let loose with a massive wave of elitist snobbery from time to time. I probably disagree with them more often than not, but they tend to tackle interesting subjects from week to week. Another podcast without formally defined segments, but they usually have three culturally significant things to discuss, and end every episode with an "endorsement" of something they enjoyed during that week.
That's all for now....
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2012 at 10:19 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods
It's difficult to talk about this movie without spoiling it, but I'll start with the notion that if you're a fan of horror movies, you should really go see this(more spoilertastic commentary will be below the fold). This is rather strange, as the movie isn't entirely a horror film, though it contains lots of horror elements and tropes. It's not really a horror comedy either, though it is very funny at times. It's got satirical elements, but it's not really a satire. It's a strange beast, but a very interesting one. Movies like this don't come around that often, so check it out.

Again, trying to avoid spoilers here, but looking at the filmmakers is instructive. The film's got a script from Joss Whedon, which should tell you something, and then you've got Drew Goddard, a regular in the Whedon and J.J. Abrams writers stable. In other words, expect genre deconstruction and mysterious folk lurking in the shadows. Or something.

It's certainly not a perfect film, but it's probably the best thing I've seen so far this year, and the most fun too. Unfortunately, it's hard to talk about it for fear of spoiling. It's not a movie that relies on a single twist or anything and you can tell from the movie's title what's coming. Heck, it's not so much a title as it is a premise: kids go to a cabin in the woods. Guess what happens next? But Whedon and Goddard make the sub-genre feel fresh in a way you don't see very often. Again, it's not reliant on a big surprise, but rather a series of small twists and tweaks, starting from the first scene in the film, none of which are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but which build upon each other to create an effective cumulative result. Again, if you're a fan of horror movies, you need to see this.

Well, that's probably enough trying to skirt around the details. Spoilers aho, fun ahoy! So very quickly, yes, there are five kids (each conforming to a stereotypical archetype like "The Fool" and "The Virgin") that go to spend the weekend in a remote cabin in the woods. And yes, they are attacked by a family of redneck zombies after they read some latin aloud whilst investigating a creepy basement. But the most interesting thing about the movie is that the kids are basically being manipulated by some sort of shadowy organization; an effort lead by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. At first, this organization seems like the villain, but it seems that this ritual destruction of youth at the cabin is actually necessary to forestall an even bigger disaster - the rising of the Lovecraftian elder gods.

Of course, the kids don't play along quite as expected, and while first half or two thirds of the movie are pretty conventional, the shit really hits the fan in the last third. When we first find out what the kids were facing (redneck zombies!), I was a little disappointed... but then you get that last sequence of the film, where everything just goes crazy. Horror fans will delight in all of the references (throughout the whole film, but especially in the climactic sequences). Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite stick the dismount. It's going fantastically for a while, but then Sigourney Weaver shows up and delivers some clunky exposition that didn't quite hit the right note for me. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't ruin the movie or anything, and the ultimate outcome of the film is fine.

To use the gymnastics metaphor, this movie is like a routine that starts off conventionally, well performed, but nothing we haven't seen before. But then, about two thirds of the way through, some really amazingly acrobatic stuff starts happening, leading to a huge dismount. The movie doesn't stumble, but it's not an entirely clean landing either. It's the sort of thing where the audience at home is exhilarated by the performance, but the announcer says something like "Ohhh, that's gonna cost them a tenth of a point" or something absurd. Still very high scores and everyone cheers, but not quite a perfect 10.

There's a ton of metaphorical possibilities with this movie though. For example, Devin Faraci effectively argues that the Whitford and Jenkins characters are actually the heroes... or maybe anti-heroes of the piece, not the kids:
That's the real twist of the movie. After all, you know right from the start that the events in the cabin are being controlled. But the assumption is that this is something insidious, something evil. I've seen a lot of reviews that utterly misunderstand the truth about Downstairs. The truth is that these guys are saving the world. Once a year they engage in a sacrifice that saves the world. It's terrible, and you may have issues with how they go about it - especially the way they blow off steam partying and betting - but the reality is that there are dark forces that needed to be contained, and this is how it's done.
Whedon and Goddard have apparently often compared themselves (in the roles of writer/director) to the Whitford and Jenkins characters (the ones manipulating the kids in the movie). If they're the filmmakers, then the elder gods could be the audience - us. Or you could say that the elder gods are the studio execs and we're the kids being slaughtered. You could go the more serious rout and claim that the young are being sacrificed at the behest of their elders.

In any case, there's lots to chew on here, especially in the realm of media and the audience relationship with creators. It calls to mind a lot of other films, while still being distinct and worthwhile on its own. I'm think of The Truman Show or maybe even Rubber, which are a little more explicit in their exploration of audiences, but still quite effective.

Many of the questions that are called to mind in this movie surround the tropes and conventions of horror, which you could argue have become stale and are somewhat disturbing in and of themselves. I mean, why do we enjoy watching the young get slaughtered by monsters? Seeing this movie now also paints The Hunger Games in a less flattering light, as that book/movie never really worked for me. I could tell it wanted me to be asking these same questions, but I was never immersed enough in the world to care. The Cabin in the Woods has a lot of things that I'd think would pull me out of the story too, but they never really did. I mean, the logistics of capturing, storing, and maintaining the monsters would be pretty absurd, as is the notion of the "Red Button" (though I appreciated the touch of the two step activation system - it's not a button anyone would ever want to press, but if you're going to build it, it's comforting to know that they made it safe enough that it wouldn't be accidentally triggered!)

I could probably ramble on and on about the symbolic interpretations of the movie or all of the references, but I'll just end with a few of my favorites:
  • Badass Digest has a wonderful screencap of the white board that lists out all of potential monsters. We get to see a lot of these things in the final third of the movie, but just the list of names is brilliant in itself. When I first saw the movie I was straining to see as many as possible. The ones that jumped out at me upon viewing were the Deadites (a reference to Evil Dead II) and, simply, "Kevin" (I don't know if that's just there to be random, or if it's some sort of reference to We Need to Talk About Kevin - a movie I haven't seen, so I have no idea if this even makes sense). But having a clear snapshot of the board is awesome; there are so many great options on the board. So many questions (and it's good that they're not answered too). I have to wonder why some of the options weren't chosen in the betting pool - what's so wrong with Reptilius or The Dismemberment Goblins that no one chose them in the pool? And I love the ones that are sorta duplicates, but have been made distinctions anyway. The one mentioned in the film is Zombies vs. Redneck Zombie Family, but I think my favorite on the board is Witches vs. Sexy Witches.
  • On one of the podcasts I listen to, someone (I think Joe from Extra Hot Great) lamented that all of the monsters were generic versions of things that have more specific versions. For instance it's clear that the "Hell Lord" (aka Fornicus, Lord of Bondage) is a reference to Hellraiser, but for obvious reasons, the filmmakers would never be able to afford to buy up the rights to all of the referenced monsters (or representations thereof that we would recognize). Personally, I love that they're not the exact representations or names we recognize. I think it would have been kinda annoying to see Pinhead show up in this movie. The movie clearly derives all the monsters from somewhere, but there's still at least an element of originality at play here that would be lost if they used existing properties.
  • I think one of my favorite parts of the movie was their hilarious take on Japanese Horror, and I would have loved to have seen more than the short glimpses of the other (failed) sacrifices around the world.
  • Though not explicitly referenced and clearly not exactly comparable, did anyone else get a Cube vibe from the whole facility?
  • I really like the breadth and specificity of some of the references. There are big movies and small movies, old classics, old B-movies, and newer fare too. I mean, Angry Molesting Tree (clearly a reference to The Evil Dead (the first one)), Snowman (which could be for pure absurdity value, but then, there is Jack Frost), Dolls (basically from The Strangers), Twins (presumably a reference to the Grady twins from The Shining). And then there are even some original addtions - the "Dragonbat" seems to be unique to this film.
Well, there you have it. I think this is a movie I'm going to end up owning, just for the extras I hope are on the disc!
Posted by Mark on April 22, 2012 at 07:51 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Link Dump
I'm gonna be taking a trip to The Cabin in The Woods tonight, so time is sparse, thus some linkys for you:
  • In Defense of Microsoft Word - Aziz makes a nice argument in response to incessant whinging on the internets:
    It’s certainly true that using Word for simple text like email or blog posts is overkill, in much the same way that using a jet engine to drive your lawnmower is overkill. What’s peculiar is that rather than using simpler tools for their simpler tasks, these people have declared that the more complex and capable tool is "obsolete" and "must die". This attitude betrays a type of phobia towards technology that I suspect has grown more prevalent as our technology interfaces have become increasingly more "dumbed down".
    I mostly agree with Aziz. While I haven't used Word (or a Word processor in general) in my personal life in years, I use it every day at work, and the notion that you can't use Word to collaborate is bonkers. It may not be the best tool for that, but it's certainly not something that needs to die. An interesting post...
  • Books: Bits vs. Atoms - Those who have enjoyed my recent bloviating about ebooks will probably get a kick out of this... better organized... take on the subject (that being said, we cover a lot of the same ground).
  • What Amazon's ebook strategy means - Speaking of ebooks, Charlie Stross clearly lays out why Amazon is dominating the ebook market, how the publishers shot themselves in the foot by practically insisting that Amazon dominate the market, why it's a bad situation to be in, and how publishers can take some steps in the right direction. Hint: get rid of DRM, you dummies! There's a lot of lawsuits and wanking in the book and ebook industry right now, and it's tempting to take sides with Amazon or the publishers or Apple or whoever, but the more I read about it, the more I think that everyone is to blame. So far, this hasn't really impacted us consumers that much, but it certainly could. Here's to hoping these folks get their heads bolted on straight in the near future.
  • Neal Stephenson has a hard time talking about swordplay - Normally I find "trailers" for books to be mildly embarrassing (the trailer for Stephenson's Anathem is a particularly bad example), but this one is pretty funny. No idea how much of it will be represented in the forthcoming paperback release of The Mongoliad, but still.
  • Gabe's PAX Post - Gabe from Penny Arcade helps run huge video game conventions that are explicitely targeted towards players (most conventions are about general technology or development, and are targeted towards journalists or developers). As one of the creators and organizers, Gabe has to deal with all sorts of crap, and he covers a few of these, including a little prank he played on a troll, and a vexing problem concerning boobies (aka the perennial Booth Babe issue). Read the whole thing, but the key graph is this:
    How about all of you that hate me get together and have your own conference. I need you to decide if half naked girls are empowered or exploited because I’m doing my fucking best here and it’s apparently always wrong. I swear to God I don’t understand how I’m supposed to know if I’m promoting the patriarchy or criminalizing the female body.
    As Steven notes, this is a cry for help. I wish I had answers, but fortunately, I'm not in Gabe's position. I can just treat people equally and be happy with that.
That's all for now. Also, go Flyers.
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2012 at 07:09 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

When the whole Kickstarter thing started, I went through a number of phases. First, it's a neat idea and it leverages some of the stuff that makes the internet great. Second, as my systems analyst brain started chewing on it, I had some reservations... but that was shortlived as, third, some really interesting stuff started getting funded. Here are some of the ones I'm looking forward to:
  • Singularity & Co. - Save the SciFi! - Yeah, so you'll be seeing a lot of my nerdy pursuits represented here, and this one is particularly interesting. This is a project dedicated to saving SF books that are out of print, out of circulation, and, ironically, unavailable in any sort of digital format. The Kickstarter is funding the technical solution for scanning the books as well as tracking down and securing copyright. Judging from the response (over $50,000), this is a venture that has found a huge base of support, and I'm really looking forward to discovering some of these books (some of which are from well known authors, like Arthur C. Clarke).
  • A Show With Ze Frank - One of the craziest things I've seen on the internet is Ze Frank's The Show. Not just the content, which is indeed crazy, but the sheer magnitude of what he did - a video produced every weekday for an entire year. Ze Frank grew quite a following at the time, and in fact, half the fun was his interactions with the fans. Here's to hoping that Sniff, hook, rub, power makes another appearance. And at $146 thousand, I have no idea what we're in for. I always wondered how he kept himself going during the original show, but now at least he'll be funded.
  • Oast House Hop Farm - And now we come to my newest obsession: beer. This is a New Jersey farm that's seeking to convert a (very) small portion of their land into a Hop Farm. Hops in the US generally come from the west coast (Washington's Yakima valley, in particular). In the past, that wasn't the case, but some bad luck (blights and infestations) brought east coast hops down, then Prohibition put a nail in the coffin. The farm hopes to supply NJ brewers as well as homebrewers, so mayhaps I'll be using some of their stuff in the future! So far, they've planted Cascade and Nugget hops, with Centennial and Newport coming next. I'm really curious to see how this turns out. My understanding is that it takes a few years for a hop farm to mature, and that each crop varies. I wonder how the East Coast environs will impact the hops...
  • American Beer Blogger - Despite the apparent failure of Discovery's Brewmasters, there's got to be room for some sort of beer television show, and famous beer blogger and author Lew Bryson wants to give it a shot. The Kickstarter is just for the pilot episode, but assuming things go well, there may be follow up efforts. I can only hope it turns out well. I enjoyed Brewmasters for what it was, but being centered on Dogfish Head limited it severely. Sam Calagione is a great, charismatic guy, but the show never really captured the amazing stuff going on in the US right now (which is amazing because it is so broad and local and a million other things Brewmasters couldn't really highlight given its structure).
Well, there you have it. I... probably should have been linking to these before they were funded, but whatever, I'm really happy to see that all of these things will be coming. I'm still curious to see if this whole Kickstarter thing will remain sustainable, but I guess time will tell, and for now, I'm pretty happy with the stuff being funded. There are definitely a ton of other campaigns that I think are interesting, especially surrounding beer and video games, but I'm a little tight on time here, so I'll leave it at that...
Posted by Mark on April 15, 2012 at 08:28 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks and Readers
While I have some pet peeves with the Kindle, I've mostly found it to be a good experience. That being said, there are some things I'd love to see in the future. These aren't really complaints, as some of this stuff isn't yet available, but there are a few opportunities afforded by the electronic nature of eBooks that would make the whole process better.
  • The Display - The electronic ink display that the basic Kindles use is fantastic... for reading text. Once you get beyond simple text, things are a little less fantastic. Things like diagrams, artwork, and photography aren't well represented in e-ink, and even in color readers (like the iPad or Kindle Fire), there are issues with resolution and formatting that often show up in eBooks. Much of this comes down to technology and cost, both of which are improving quickly. Once stuff like IMOD displays start to deliver on their promise (low power consumption, full color, readable in sunlight, easy on the eyes, capable of supporting video, etc...), we should see a new breed of reader.

    I'm not entirely sure how well this type of display will work, at least initially. For instance, how will it compare to the iPad 3's display? What's the resolution like? How much will it cost? And so on. Current implementations aren't full color, and I suspect that future iterations will go through a phase where the tech isn't quite there yet... but I think it will be good enough to move forward. I think Amazon will most certainly jump on this technology when it becomes feasible (both from a technical and cost perspective). I'm not sure if Apple would switch though. I feel like they'd want a much more robust and established display before they committed.
  • General Metrics and Metadata - While everyone would appreciate improvements in device displays, I'm not sure how important this would be. Maybe it's just me, but I'd love to see a lot more in the way of metadata and flexibility, both about the book and about device usage. With respect to the book itself, this gets to the whole page number issue I was whinging about in my previous post, but it's more than that. I'd love to see a statistical analysis of what I'm reading, on both individual and collective levels.

    I'm not entirely sure what this looks like, but it doesn't need to be rocket science. Simple Flesch-Kincaid grades seems like an easy enough place to start, and it would be pretty simple to implement. Calculating such things for my entire library (or a subset of my library), or ranking my library by grade (or similar sorting methods) would be interesting. I don't know that this would provide a huge amount of value, but I would personally find it very illuminating and fun to play around with... and it would be very easy to implement. Individual works wouldn't even require any processing power on the reader, it could be part of the download. Doing calculations of your collective library might be a little more complicated, but even that could probably be done in the cloud.

    Other metadata would also be interesting to view. For example, Goodreads will graph your recently read books by year of publication - a lot of analysis could be done about your collection (or a sub-grouping of your collection) of books along those lines. Groupings by decade or genre or reading level, all would be very interesting to know.
  • Personal Metrics and Metadata - Basically, I'd like to have a way to track my reading speed. For whatever reason, this is something I'm always trying to figure out for myself. I've never gone through the process of actually recording my reading habits and speeds because it would be tedious and manual and maybe not even all that accurate. But now that I'm reading books in an electronic format, there's no reason why the reader couldn't keep track of what I'm reading, when I'm reading, and how fast I'm reading. My anecdotal experience suggests that I read anywhere from 20-50 pages an hour, depending mostly on the book. As mentioned in the previous post, a lot of this has to do with the arbitrary nature of page numbers, so perhaps standardizing to a better metric (words per minute or something like that) would normalize my reading speed.

    Knowing my reading speed and graphing changes over time could be illuminating. I've played around a bit with speed reading software, and the results are interesting, but not drastic. In any case, one thing that would be really interesting to know when reading a book would be how much time you have left before you finish. Instead of having 200 pages, maybe you have 8 hours of reading time left.

    Combining my personal data with the general data could also yield some interesting results. Maybe I read trashy SF written before 1970 much faster than more contemporary literary fiction. Maybe I read long books faster than short books. There are a lot of possibilities here.

    There are a few catches to this whole personal metrics thing though. You'd need a way to account for breaks and interruptions. I might spend three hours reading tonight, but I'm sure I'll take a break to get a glass of water or answer a phone call, etc... There's not really an easy way around this, though there could be mitigating factors like when the reader goes to sleep mode or something like that. Another problem is that one device can be used by multiple people, which would require some sort of profile system. That might be fine, but it also adds a layer of complexity to the interface that I'm sure most companies would like to avoid. The biggest and most concerning potential issue is that of privacy. I'd love to see this information about myself, but would I want Amazon to have access to it? On the other hand, being able to aggregate data from all Kindles might prove interesting in its own right. Things like average reading speed, number of books read in a year, and so on. All interesting and useful info.

    This would require an openness and flexibility that Amazon has not yet demonstrated. It's encouraging that the Kindle Fire runs a flavor of Android (an open source OS), but on the other hand, it's a forked version that I'm sure isn't as free (as in speech) as I'd like (and from what I know, the Fire is partially limited by its hardware). Expecting comprehensive privacy controls from Amazon seems naive.

    I'd like to think that these metrics would be desirable to a large audience of readers, but I really have no inclination what the mass market appeal would be. It's something I'd actually like to see in a lot of other places too. Video games, for instance, provide a lot of opportunity for statistics, and some games provide a huge amount of data on your gaming habits (be it online or in a single player mode). Heck, half the fun of sports games (or sports in general) is tracking the progress of your players (particularly prospects). Other games provide a lack of depth that is most baffling. People should be playing meta-games like Fantasy Baseball, but with MLB The Show providing the data instead of real life.
  • The Gamification of Reading - Much of the above wanking about metrics could probably be summarized as a way to make reading a game. The metrics mentioned above readily lend themselves to point scores, social-app-like badges, and leaderboards. I don't know that this would necessarily be a good thing, but it could make for an intriguing system. There's an interesting psychology at work in systems like this, and I'd be curious to see if someone like Amazon could make reading more addictive. Assuming most people don't try to abuse the system (though there will always be a cohort that will attempt to exploit stuff like this), it could ultimately lead to beneficial effects for individuals who "play" the game competitively with their friends. Again, this isn't necessarily a good thing. Perhaps the gamification of reading will lead to a sacrifice of comprehension in the name of speed, or other mitigating effects. Still, it would be nice to see the "gamification of everything" used for something other than a way for companies to trick customers into buying their products.
As previously mentioned, the need for improved displays is a given (and not just for ereaders). But assuming these nutty metrics (and the gamification of reading) are an appealing concept, I'd like to think that it would provide an opening for someone to challenge Amazon in the market. An open, flexible device using a non-DRMed format and tied to a common store would be very nice. Throw in some game elements, add a great display, and you've got something close to my ideal reader. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like we're all that close just yet. Maybe in 5-10 years? Seems possible, but it's probably more likely that Amazon will continue its dominance.
Posted by Mark on April 11, 2012 at 09:22 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Link Dump
Happy Easter everyone. Time is short so here are some quick links: That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on April 08, 2012 at 08:01 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week we discovered some presidential badassery. This time, we've got a ripping tale of aliens, nazis, and lasers:
Zone Troopers poster
Courtesy of Zach Carlson from Badass Digest, here's a summary:
Watching Zone Troopers, you get the feeling that it's accidentally ten times better than it's meant to be. The plot and dialogue seem like they were written on a comic shop toilet stall: Four likeable WWII soldiers named things like "Sarge" and "Mittens" stumble across enemy lines and the Reich's most carefully guarded discovery: a massive interplanetary spacecraft. One of its pilots has escaped unharmed, and joins our boys in a full-metal lazer-battle against Hitler's lil' shits. We even get to see Eva Braun's boyfriend get smacked straight in the kisser!
Ah, the 1980s. Apparently this movie is actually real and is available through the magic of Manufactured-on-Demand DVD from MGM. Or something.
Posted by Mark on April 04, 2012 at 08:25 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks
I had this idea for a series of posts when I was just getting started on the blog where I would rant on and on about this or that subject. I even created a category for it! But then, I almost immediately neglected the category. I'm a generally amiable guy, not frequently disgruntled. Maybe freakish though. Anyway, I thought I'd revisit the concept.

So I got a Kindle for Christmas last year and have been reading as many ebooks as possible. I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, but I have some assorted thoughts, some freakish, some disgruntled, and some just plain gruntled.
  • The hardware is reasonably nice. The electronic ink display is perfect for reading. It's a little heavy, but not much more than a typical mass-market paperback, and about on part with a medium sized trade paperback. That being said, it's much less awkward to hold, as you don't have to fight the binding to keep the book open. On the other hand, the touch interface isn't quite as responsive as I'd like. Not sure if this is due to the E Ink or processor power (or perhaps a bit of both). It takes some getting used to, but it works well enough. On rare occasions I'll accidentally flip past too many pages quickly, but that doesn't really happen enough to call it a real issue. All in all, it's a quality device, and I'm pretty happy with it from a hardware standpoint.
  • The interface is sparing and easy to intuitively use, with the only real exception being the aforementioned lack of responsiveness on the touchscreen, which takes some getting used to. But I do love the ability to search, highlight, and annotate my books (especially non-fiction). For years I've wanted to do a "CTRL F" on a book, and now I can do so easily (in the past, Google books was often helpful, though not consistent in this respect).
  • The lack of page numbers. Hoo boy, the lack of page numbers. This is the one that makes me feel like a bit of a curmudgeonly dweeb, but I reallly miss page numbers. Oh sure, half the time I'm converting page numbers to the percentage complete and the concept of one "page" is elastic and arbitrary in the extreme (for example, compare 1 page in Gravity's Rainbow to 1 page in Harry Potter - ostensibly the same measurement, but thanks to font size, line spacing, and margins, you'd probably have to read 3-4 pages of Harry Potter to equal 1 page of Gravity's Rainbow, and that's just from a words on the page perspective, not a literary value or density of ideas perspective), but I like page numbers. I don't think this really qualifies me as a luddite, but perhaps I am a bit of a crackpot. Still, I really miss page numbers, and the worst part is that on many occasions, the book will have page numbers available, they just aren't displayed by default. What you get by default is just the percentage complete and the mystical "Location" number which kinda/sorta makes sense, but is still inferior to page numbers. Maybe this is all just a frame of reference thing and I'll get used to it, but it's been a few months, and neither Location or Percentage really strike the right cord with me. This is completely a perception thing. I want to feel like I'm making progress and percentage doesn't increment often enough for that... On the other hand, the location increments too much as you read, making it hard to wrap my head around. All of this would be a moot point if Amazon would just let us modify the interface (for all I know, they do, but it's not obvious where). I know this is an old argument and I don't want to start a holy war here, but for crying out loud, it's obvious that there is a segment of Kindle consumers who fucking hate location and percentage and just want page numbers, why can't Amazon just let us choose what we want displayed?
  • Amazon sure does make it easy to purchase new books and send them to your Kindle. The issue, of course, is that I'm not locked into Amazon's proprietary format/store. Other stores are hit and miss as to whether or not they work with the Kindle. Baen books works, and will even email the file to your Kindle for you (which is nice). But Baen books is awesome like that (leave it to the hardcore SF publisher to embrace open formats and systems - the grand majority of Bujold's library is available for free online, but I bought from their store anyway, because I want to support them and Bujold). Google's new bookstore doesn't work with Kindle, nor does Barnes & Noble. So far, this hasn't been a disaster, I just hate the notion of DRM systems and being locked down. At least Amazon seems to have made kindle readers for almost every conceivable device, so there is that. I haven't played around enough to see how well all these different readers work, etc...
  • For the most part, I don't really miss having a hard copy of most books. There are definitely books I plan to purchase a physical copy of in the near future (*ahem* at least a couple of these) and I suppose there is a benefit to the physical copy that you don't get out of a digital copy, but I'm generally a pragmatic guy, and the pros seem to outweigh the cons. Steven Ray Orr makes a pretty good case for physical books, but also seems to be embracing digital copies, like me:
    Each book and every bookshelf is a biography of the owner. If you were to explore mine, a great deal would be revealed. The obvious: science fiction, Stephen King, and political theory dominate my history; and the aesthetic of a collection is more important than strict organization.1 The odd: Twilight sits upon a stack of feminist thought; at least four Bibles line the shelves, amidsts athiest manifestos and Christian scholarship; and there is an Atari 2600 gathering dust and taking up precious space.

    And then the books themselves, holding more than the author’s intended words with stories added by each reader: God Emperor of Dune is dog-earred on every third page; Twilight has been defaced, all red pen and hate; and numerous novels are bookmarked with old receipts or gum wrappers, indications of unsuccessful attempts.
    And it's true, though I think at least half of my books are squirreled away in boxes in my basement. Still, I really love that my copy of LotR is a box set bought from the Scholastic catalog in gradeschool (and that the paper is yellowing and becoming brittle with age - Jesus, those things are going on 20-25 years old now...) and I like having some reference books and whatnot available, not to mention books from my favorite authors. Like Steven says, your books say a lot about you... and we all know it. I don't think I consciously rearrange my shelves to make me seem like someone I'm not, but if I don't like a book, chances are I'm not going to want to see it often and it will thus be banished to the boxes in the basement. But if I do like it, I'll probably keep it visible.

    I haven't gotten to a point where I've started buying physical books that I've read digitally, but apparently this happens somewhat frequently. It's what Eric S. Raymond calls an Identity Good:
    An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People buy The New Hacker's Dictionary because they are, or want to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.
    Interestingly, Eric is writing about how posting free copies of his books online has helped his physical book sales... in part because he tends to write books that people want to be identified with.
    I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD) that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping populations.
    Now, I do find this interesting, because I'm probably more willing to try something out that goes against my grain in a digital version. Is that because it's then not sitting on my shelf? Maybe, and maybe the lack of physicality makes it seem like less of an investment. I'll have to pay attention to this going forward...
  • The selection of books available on Kindle seems reasonable until you start to get obscure... and unfortunately, the obscure stuff is what I really want to get after. Some classics in various specialized fields have made their way to Kindle versions (The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware are two great, long out-of-print examples), and that's wonderful. But there are tons of things I want to read that are out of print but unavailable on Kindle. I know that there is some work involved in digitizing books, but it's not a huge effort - tons of folks have undertaken projects like this will plenty of success. And this is before you even get to the dumb slap-fights that Amazon is constantly getting into with the publishers. This isn't meant to come down on one side of the issue, because everyone is to blame here, and at this point, I feel like the publishers are being a little too cagey for their own good. Especially now that you get all these rather odd situations in which the ebook costs more than the actual book itself. How does that work? It's a naked money grab, and everyone knows it. Of course, publishers should be able to set their prices to what they want, but it's patently absurd to claim that the exact same content somehow possesses more value when it's published with little to no overhead (i.e. no materials, printing, etc... neeeded). Publishers make a lot more money on an ebook version, even when it's cheaper than a paperback (and notably, most of the time, that extra profit is not making its way to the author). Most of the time, the books are priced reasonably (or at least cheaper than the print versions), but maybe publishers should be a little less money-grubbing. Again, it's not like readers are entitled to cheaper prices on everything all the time, but that is part of the promise of digital books in the first place. It just makes no sense that an ebook would ever cost more than a physical copy (unless we're talking about a used copy or something)... This is one issue in which I tend to agree with Nicholas Carr on, and he has some interesting ideas about the ideal consumer need:
    Buy the atoms, get the bits free. That just feels right - in tune with the universe, somehow.

    There's a lesson here, I think, for book publishers. Readers today are forced to choose between buying a physical book or an ebook, but a lot of them would really like to have both on hand - so they'd be able, for instance, to curl up with the print edition while at home (and keep it on their shelves) but also be able to load the ebook onto their e-reader when they go on a trip.
    It's a well thought out argument and I'd love it if that was ever implemented, but I'm not holding my breath either. It's too much of a cash cow for publishers, who are probably struggling these days (another reason to perhaps not be too upset at ebook pricing) and won't see the consumer delight in getting booth a physical and electronic book in a single purchase as being enough of a benefit for them...
And that about covers my initial thoughts on the subject. I guess there's a fair share of disgruntlement above, and that is honest and true, but I also really do enjoy reading ebooks. I expect a fair amount of my reading will proceed on ebooks. If they're available. Grumble, grumble.
Posted by Mark on April 01, 2012 at 10:11 PM .: link :.

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