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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Sunday, November 04, 2012

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on the Disney/Lucasfilm Deal
In the midst of the Frankenstorm, those of us on the east coast felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out... in joy! We feared that... something wonderful had happened. Alright, so calling this deal "wonderful" is an exaggeration, but on the whole, I think this will be a positive thing for Star Wars nerds everywhere. For the uninitiated, earlier this week, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, a deal encompassing the Star Wars franchise as well as ancillary entities like ILM and Skywalker Sound. In addition, Disney announced that it plans to release Star Wars Episode VII in 2015. No details on the creative aspects of that movie except that George Lucas will remain involved as a "creative consultant".
It is our destiny...
Disgruntled, freakish reflections on the deal:
  • Some might be concerned with Disney's corporate greed, but I find their lack of faith disturbing. In all seriousness, it's not like Lucasfilm wasn't in a constant state of money-grubbing, merchandising, and DVD/BD double dipping, not to mention George Lucas' constant tweaking of the original series (i.e. a crowning achievement in trolling). In fact, this might be one of those occasions where greed works to our advantage. Corporate greed may drive Disney to, you know, give the fans what they want: a pristine, restored, anamorphic HD release (blu-ray, download, streaming, whatever) of the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy. As Jonathan Last notes:
    For too long we've been held hostage to the personal artistic visions of George Lucas who, like Stalin airbrushing his enemies out of state photographs, carefully disappeared the original theatrical cuts so that Gredo could shoot first, CGI spectacle could muddle up Mos Eisley, and a young Hayden Christiansen could appear to Luke Skywalker and automatically make him realize that he's his dad.

    Now Disney's corporate greed could give us the product we've always craved. All hail Disney corporate greed!
    Plus, it should also be noted that Disney seems to have a pretty good track record of allowing acquisitions to thrive on their own terms. Both Pixar and Marvel seem to be in pretty good shape. Heck, even Studio Ghibli seems to have done well under the Disney umbrella. If Disney puts out HD copies of the theatrical cuts of the movies, this deal will have been worth it.
  • According to this painfully corporate interview with Lucas, he has "treatments" for 7, 8, and 9 and he'll be a "creative consultant" on the new movies. I have no idea what this means for the upcoming films, but I'm cautiously optimistic. While I'd love to see Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy up on screen, I'm doubting we'll get anything like that (perhaps they'll throw us a bone and feature a Thrawn cameo). I don't know how closely Disney will be obliged to follow Lucas' "treatments" of the new films, but as long as Lucas isn't actually writing the scripts or directing the movies, we should be in pretty good shape. As much as I've ragged on Lucas in the past, I think the guy does have pretty good ideas, and if you look at movies where he was a producer (but not writer/director), he's actually got a pretty good track record. Empire, Jedi and the first three Indiana Jones movies are all fantastic. Crystal Skull gives pause, though. Much of this will depend on the actual creative talent that Disney hires for this, which will, no doubt result in entitled hand-wringing by fans. Again, I'm cautiously optimistic.
  • Speaking of hand-wringing about creative talent, I think these new movies represents a conundrum for movie nerds. On the one hand, I want these movies to be good and thus it would be nice to get good creative types involved. On the other hand, that means that these creative types won't be working on their own original ideas, which is depressing. Does Disney dare hand the franchise over to young talent? Do they go with more established types? Do they hire a hack? There's a lot of pitfalls here, and I have to say that I'm not too enthused about a lot of names being thrown around. Christopher Nolan doesn't feel right, and I want him to work on original stuff anyway. JJ Abrams (and his regular stable of writers, like Lindelof, Kurtzman, and Orci) doesn't feel right either, and his writing staff is hit-or-miss at best (Star Trek reboot good, Prometheus and Transformers hideously bad). Zack Snyder might work, except that he's Zack Snyder and I've never really loved any of his movies. Edgar Wright could be a good pick, I guess, but again, I'd rather he work on original material (or at least obscure adaptations). Really, none of the names being thrown around seem that great to me. This seems like an impossible choice, but again, cautiously optimistic here.
  • I'm not particularly excited about any crossover potential, which seems to be where a lot of nerds go whenever a deal like this is mentioned. Still, I don't think we've seen a lot of Marvel/Pixar/Disney crossover, so I don't think we'll see Star Wars mixing it up. Except maybe in video games. Marvel vs. Star Wars, anyone?
  • Speaking of video games, maybe Disney will rev LucasArts back up and make some of them adventure games from the 90s again. Or maybe even reboots of X-Wing and/or Tie Fighter (I spent a lot of time playing those games in the 90s!)
  • Four words: Pixar Star Wars Movie. Perhaps a post-IX movie? Let's make this happen while Pixar still has that creative talent (though some may say that it's already too late, given the last couple Pixar movies).
Well, that's all for now. Again, I think this will be a generally positive thing for Star Wars fans. Ironically, it may even be a good thing that Lucas has been trolling everyone for so long, as it's brought the series down a few pegs, to the point where it doesn't seem so sacred that a new movie would never work. Fingers crossed.
Posted by Mark on November 04, 2012 at 11:40 AM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on Bagels, The Simpsons, and Cheesesteaks
Things will be quite busy over the next few weeks, so I'm afraid these random bits and pieces will have to do for now.
  • What the Bagel Man Saw (NY Times registration required): So this government statistician gets sick of his boring career and, in a move resembling Homer Simpson's decision to go to clown college, announces "I'm getting out of this. I'm going to sell bagels." So he became a bagel salesman, and instituted the honor system. He would drop off a box of bagels and a cash box to various businesses in the morning, and then collect an empty box and a (~90%) full cash box. It seems, though, that his statistician habits die hard, as he has kept rigorous statistics of his business.
    He had also -- quite without meaning to -- designed a beautiful economic experiment. By measuring the money collected against the bagels taken, he could tell, down to the penny, just how honest his customers were. Did they steal from him? If so, what were the characteristics of a company that stole versus a company that did not? Under what circumstances did people tend to steal more, or less? As it happens, his accidental study provides a window onto a subject that has long stymied academics: white-collar crime. (Yes, shorting the bagel man is white-collar crime, writ however small.)
    He considers a company honest if they pay 90% of what they're supposed to. It turns out that you're able to pull all sorts of information out of this economic model. Weather, for instance, plays a significant part in the payment rate: "Unseasonably pleasant weather inspires people to pay a significantly higher rate. Unseasonably cold weather, meanwhile, makes people cheat prolifically; so does heavy rain and wind." Interesting stuff. [via Sneaking Suspicions]
  • Speaking of the Simpsons, I was watching the Pieman episode tonight and was immediately depressed. I'm hardly the first person to make the observation that the show isn't what it used to be (I'm actually the last, as of the time of this posting), but it really has lost something. Tonight's episode started with one of those random prologues that make the Simpsons so great. They were watching a trashy Fox (but I repeat myself, hyuk!) reality show about a rich millionaire who brought a bunch of women to his personal island and blah, blah, blah. Then the producers revealed the secret: It wasn't an island at all, it's really a peninsula! It's actually quite funny, but the writers are repeating themselves. I guess it's supposed to be some sort of self-referential in-joke, but it comes off as being repetitious and boring (and repetitious). The Monster Island bit is one of my favorites from the show, seeing it repeated like this just annoyed me.
  • Meathead Sandwiches: For reasons unbeknownst to be (and possibly knowst only to him), Meathead has taken a vacation from lampooning Trent Reznor and NIN and begun writing about... sandwiches. As always, his writing is entertaining and funny, and I'm proud to say that the Philly Cheesesteak ranks as number one on his top ten sandwiches list. Unfortunately, in a later post on how to make a Philly Cheesesteak, he reveals that the sandwhich he loves is only slightly related to the true Philly Cheesesteak (He uses roast beef?). It is an odd phenomenon. Almost anywhere outside of Southeastern Pennsylvania, what is called a "Philly Cheesesteak" barely resembles the real thing. So what makes a "true" cheesesteak? First, the beef. Preferably a rib eye steak that is cut exceptionally thin (it is often partially frozen to allow thinner slicing, about 1/16 of an inch). Minute steak and chip steak can serve as desperate substitutes if needed. Next, the cheese. I prefer American myself, applied as Meathead describes it: "in artsy-fartsy diagonal fashion." There has been a fad here of using Cheese Wiz™, but I tend to stay away from that stuff (for reasons which should be obvious). Finally, the roll. I'm not really sure what to say about it - what you really need is a roll from a South Philly Italian bakery. Apparently these types of rolls are less common elsewhere. Other ingredients (mushrooms, onions, peppers - I never heard of mayo on a cheesesteak, but whatever floats your boat) are optional. Perhaps someday I'll do a more formal recipe, but this will have to do for now...
That's it for now. As I said, posting will continue to be light (as if it isn't normally light) for at least the next week or so - I might miss next Sunday's post if I don't have the internet set up at my new place (did I mention I'm moving? That's why I'm so busy of late...) Hopefully, though, I'll be all settled. Wish me luck.
Posted by Mark on June 20, 2004 at 10:28 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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