Computers & Internet

Revisiting Snow Crash

I bought the paperback edition of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash sometime around 1993-1994. Near as I can tell, this was the first edition of the mass market paperback (Bantam paperback edition / May 1993). Obviously, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time, and it’s become one of the few books I’ve reread multiple times. As a book of dense ideas, it’s natural that new things strike me with each subsequent reread. People like to dismiss rereading/rewatching because the book hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t take into account that you’ve changed (and the world has changed… not to mention that the book actually might have been changed without notice for dubious reasons).

My first read of Snow Crash struck me as a fun Science Fiction action story about a samurai sword-wielding pizza delivery boy saving the world from a computer virus that originated in Sumerian myth. Lots of interesting ideas and weird tonal stuff went over my head. Subsequent rereadings happened after I’d sampled more of the cyberpunk canon (thus better recognizing the more parodic elements of Snow Crash for what they were) and learned more about linquistics and so on, all of which gave the book enough new context that it felt fresh. Such is the power of a dense book of ideas.

Anyway, 2022 was the 30th anniversary of Snow Crash, and seeing as though my paperback was basically falling apart, I splurged on a new anniversary edition of the book, complete with new, “never-seen-before material” and pages that aren’t falling out of the book. It’s been approximately a decade since I’d last reread it, and a few things struck me about it.

It’s always been hailed as a sorta prescient book, for obvious reasons. Stephenson was clearly ahead of the curve when it came to the internet, computers, and hacking, not to mention popularizing the notion of “avatars” and other stuff like VR and AR and so on. But the thing that struck me this time around was that the Metaverse, as portrayed in the book, is essentially a social network, and Stephenson clearly saw the potential drawbacks. Early in the book, our Hiro Protagonist meets up with an old friend named Juanita. In the world of the novel, they both worked on the early Metaverse infrastructure, but Juanita had pulled back somewhat of late, because:

… she has also decided that the whole thing is bogus. That no matter how good it is, the Metaverse is distorting the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships.

Snow Crash, Page 74

It’s a perfectly concise and trenchant critique of social networks (that is implicitly elaborated on throughout the book). I mean, it’s not like we haven’t all been drowning in this realization for the past decade, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that we saw it coming a few decades ago… and yet, still fall into the trap all the time.

It’s also worth noting that people have been trying (and failing) to implement the virtual reality Metaverse since the book came out. Right now, Mark Zuckerberg is literally dumping billions into his conception of the Metaverse… and no one is biting. It’s funny to read, though, that even Stephenson recognized the limitations of the VR approach:

And when hackers are hacking, they don’t mess around with the superficial world of Metaverses and avatars. They descend below this surface layer and into the netherworld of code and tangled nam-shubs that supports it, where everything that you see in the metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three-dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic page.

Snow Crash, Page 401

I have not really played around with VR much, but the notion of bulky goggles is enough to make me think it won’t find much of a mass audience until we get less obtrusive methods of connecting and viewing a VR space. And, like, they have their own drawbacks. The notion of plugging something directly into your eyeballs or jacking the eye’s connection to the brain somehow seems… inadvisable. I dunno, maybe contact lenses might work?

So not everything has aged quite as well (there’s a whole subplot about an infection that is spread through vaccines, which is a conspiracy theory that is obviously a more touchy subject these days). Anywho, it’s still a great book, and worth revisiting if you haven’t read it in a while. The “never-seen-before material” at the end of the book comes in screenplay form, and provides a bit of background for the character of Lagos, who people mostly just talk about in the rest of the novel. It’s a nice treat for Stephenson obsessives like myself, but mostly unnecessary.

The Myth of Digital Distribution

The movie lover’s dream service would be something we could subscribe to that would give us a comprehensive selection of movies to stream. This service is easy to conceive, and it’s such an alluring idea that it makes people want to eschew tried-and-true distribution methods like DVDs and Blu-Ray. We’ve all heard the arguments before: physical media is dead, streaming is the future. When I made the move to Blu-Ray about 6 years ago, I estimated that it would take at least 10 years for a comprehensive streaming service to become feasible. The more I see, the more I think that I drastically underestimated that timeline… and am beginning to feel like it might never happen at all.

MGK illustrates the problem well with this example:

this is the point where someone says “but we’re all going digital instead” and I get irritated by this because digital is hardly an answer. First off, renting films – and when you “buy” digital movies, that’s what you’re doing almost every single time – is not the same as buying them. Second, digital delivery is getting more and more sporadic as rights get more and more expensive for distributors to purchase.

As an example, take Wimbledon, a charming little 2004 sports film/romcom starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. I am not saying Wimbledon is an unsung treasure or anything; it’s a lesser offering from the Working Title factory that cranks out chipper British romcoms, a solid B-grade movie: well-written with a few flashes of inspiration, good performances all around (including a younger Nikolai Coster-Waldau before he became the Kingslayer) and mostly funny, although Jon Favreau’s character is just annoying. But it’s fun, and it’s less than a decade old. It should be relatively easy to catch digitally, right? But no. It’s not anywhere. And there are tons of Wimbledons out there.

Situations like this are an all too common occurrence, and not just with movies. It turns out that content owners can’t be bothered with a title unless it’s either new or in the public domain. This graph from a Rebecca Rosen article nicely illustrates the black hole that our extended copyright regime creates:

Books available by decade

Rosen explains:

[The graph] reveals, shockingly, that there are substantially more new editions available of books from the 1910s than from the 2000s. Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century. Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent.

The books that are the worst affected by this are those from pretty recent decades, such as the 80s and 90s, for which there is presumably the largest gap between what would satisfy some abstract notion of people’s interest and what is actually available.

More interpretation:

This is not a gently sloping downward curve! Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication. The data suggest that publishing business models make books disappear fairly shortly after their publication and long before they are scheduled to fall into the public domain. Copyright law then deters their reappearance as long as they are owned. On the left side of the graph before 1920, the decline presents a more gentle time-sensitive downward sloping curve.

This is absolutely absurd, though it’s worth noting that it doesn’t control for used books (which are generally pretty easy to find on Amazon) and while content owners don’t seem to be rushing to digitize their catalog, future generations won’t experience the same issue we’re having with the 80s and 90s. Actually, I suspect they will have trouble with 80s and 90s content, but stuff from 2010 should theoretically be available on an indefinite basis because anything published today gets put on digital/streaming services.

Of course, intellectual property law being what it is, I’m sure that new proprietary formats and readers will render old digital copies obsolete, and once again, consumers will be hard pressed to see that 15 year old movie or book ported to the latest-and-greatest channel. It’s a weird and ironic state of affairs when the content owners are so greedy in hoarding and protecting their works, yet so unwilling to actually, you know, profit from them.

I don’t know what the solution is here. There have been some interesting ideas about having copyright expire for books that have been out of print for a certain period of time (say, 5-10 years), but that would only work now – again, future generations will theoretically have those digital versions available. They may be in a near obsolete format, but they’re available! It doesn’t seem likely that sensible copyright reform could be passed, but it would be nice to see if we could take a page from the open source playbook, but I’m seriously doubting that content owners would ever be that forward thinking.

As MGK noted, DVD ushered in an era of amazing availability, but much of that stuff has gone out of print, and we somehow appear to be regressing from that.

Serendipity (Again)

Every so often, someone posts an article like Connor Simpson’s The Lost Art of the Random Find and everyone loses their shit, bemoaning the decline of big-box video, book and music stores (of course, it wasn’t that long ago when similar folks were bemoaning the rise of big-box video, book and music stores for largely the same reasons, but I digress) and what that means for serendipity. This mostly leads to whining about the internet, like so:

…going to a real store and buying something because it caught your eye, not because some algorithm told you you’d like it — is slowly disappearing because of the Internet…

…there is nothing left to “discover,” because the Internet already knows all. If you “find” a new bad thing, it’s likely on a blog that millions of other people read daily. If you “find” a new movie, like the somehow-growing-in-popularity Sharknado, it’s because you read one of the millions of blogs that paid far too much attention to a movie that, in the old days, would have gone straight into a straight-to-DVD bargain bin.

I’ve got news for you, you weren’t “discovering” anything back in the day either. It probably felt like you were, but you weren’t. The internet is just allowing you to easily find and connect with all your fellow travelers. Occasionally something goes viral, but so what? Yeah, sometimes it sucks when a funny joke gets overtold, but hey, that’s life and it happens all the time. Simpson mentions Sharknado as if it came out of nowhere. The truth of the matter is that Sharknado is the culmination of decades of crappy cult SciFi (now SyFy) movies. Don’t believe me? This was written in 2006:

Nothing makes me happier when I’m flipping through the channels on a rainy Saturday afternoon than stumbling upon whatever god-awful original home-grown suckfest-and-craptasm movie is playing on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nowhere else can you find such a clusterfuck of horrible plot contrivances and ill-conceived premises careening face-first into a brick wall of one-dimensional cardboard characters and banal, inane, poorly-delivered dialogue. While most television stations and movie production houses out there are attempting to retain some shred of dignity or at least a modicum of credibility, it’s nice to know that the Sci-Fi Channel has no qualms whatsoever about brazenly showing twenty minute-long fight scenes involving computer-generated dinosaurs, dragons, insects, aliens, sea monsters and Gary Bussey all shooting laser beams at each other and battling for control of a planet-destroying starship as the self-destruct mechanism slowly ticks down and the fate of a thousand parallel universes hangs in the balance. You really have to give the execs at Sci-Fi credit for basically just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, “well let’s just take all this crazy shit and mash it together into one giant ridiculous mess”. Nothing is off-limits for those folks; if you want to see American troops in Iraq battle a giant man-eating Chimaera, you’ve got it. A genetically-altered Orca Whale the eats seamen and icebergs? Check. A plane full of mutated pissed-off killer bees carrying the Hanta Virus? Check. They pull out all the stops to cater to their target audience, who are pretty much so desensitized to bad science-fiction that no plot could be too over-the-top to satiate their need for giant monsters that eat people and faster-than-light spaceships shaped like the Sphynx.

And as a long time viewer of the SciFi/SyFy network since near its inception, I can tell you that this sort of love/hate has been going on for decades. That the normals finally saw the light/darkness with Sharknado was inevitable. But it will be short-lived. At least, until SyFy picks up my script for Crocoroid Versus Jellyfish.

It’s always difficult for me to take arguments like this seriously. Look, analog serendipity (browsing the stacks, digging through crates, blind buying records at a store, etc…) obviously has value and yes, opportunities to do so have lessened somewhat in recent years. And yeah, it sucks. I get it. But while finding stuff serendipitously on the internet is a different experience, but it’s certainly possible. Do these people even use the internet? Haven’t they ever been on TV Tropes?

It turns out that I’ve written about this before, during another serendipity flareup back in 2006. In that post, I reference Steven Johnson’s response, which is right on:

I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

This whole thing basically amounts to a signal versus noise problem. Serendipity is basically finding signal by accident, and it happens all the damn time on the internet. Simpson comments:

…the fall of brick-and-mortar and big-box video, book and music stores has pushed most of our consumption habits to iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. Sure, that’s convenient. But it also limits our curiosity.

If the internet limits your curiosity, you’re doing it wrong. Though I guess if your conception of the internet is limited to iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, I guess I can see why you’d be a little disillusioned. Believe it or not, there is more internet out there.

As I was writing this post, I listened to a few songs on Digital Mumbles (hiatus over!) as well as Dynamite Hemmorage. Right now, I’m listening to a song Mumbles describes as “something to fly a mech to.” Do I love it? Not really! But it’s a damn sight better than, oh, just about every time I blind bought a CD in my life (which, granted, wasn’t that often, but still). I will tell you this, nothing I’ve listened to tonight would have been something I picked up in a record store, or on iTunes for that matter. Of course, I suck at music, so take this all with a grain of salt, but still.

In the end, I get the anxiety around the decline of analog serendipity. Really, I do. I’ve had plenty of pleasant experiences doing so, and there is something sad about how virtual the world is becoming. Indeed, one of the things I really love about obsessing over beer is aimlessly wandering the aisles and picking up beers based on superficial things like labels or fancy packaging (or playing Belgian Beer Roulette). Beer has the advantage of being purely physical, so it will always involve a meatspace transaction. Books, movies, and music are less fortunate, I suppose. But none of this means that the internet is ruining everything. It’s just different. I suppose those differences will turn some people off, but stores are still around, and I doubt they’ll completely disappear anytime soon.

In Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, the character Daniel Waterhouse ponders how new systems supplant older systems:

“It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently … have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. … And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher’s Stone.” (page 639)

In this Slashdot interview, Stephenson applies the same “surround and encapsulate” concept to the literary world. And so perhaps the internet will surround and encapsulate, but never destroy, serendipitous analog discovery. (hat tip to the Hedonist Jive twitter feed)

The Irony of Copyright Protection

In Copyright Protection That Serves to Destroy, Terry Teachout lays out some of the fundamental issues surrounding the preservation of art, in particular focusing on recorded sound:

Nowadays most people understand the historical significance of recorded sound, and libraries around the world are preserving as much of it as possible. But recording technology has evolved much faster than did printing technology—so fast, in fact, that librarians can’t keep up with it. It’s hard enough to preserve a wax cylinder originally cut in 1900, but how do you preserve an MP3 file? Might it fade over time? And will anybody still know how to play it a quarter-century from now? If you’re old enough to remember floppy disks, you’ll get the point at once: A record, unlike a book, is only as durable as our ability to play it back.

Digital preservation is already a big problem for current librarians, and not just because of the mammoth amounts of digital data being produced. Just from a simple technological perspective, there are many non-trivial challenges. Even if the storage medium/reading mechanisms remain compatible over the next century, there are nontrivial challenges with ensuring these devices will remain usable that far into the future. Take hard drives. A lot of film and audio (and, I suppose books these days too) are being archived on hard drives. But you can’t just take a hard drive and stick it on a shelf somewhere and fire it up in 30 years. Nor should you keep it spinning for 30 years. It requires use, but not constant use. And even then you’ll need to ensure redundancy because hard drives fail.

Just in writing that, you can see the problem. Hard drives clearly aren’t the solution. Too many modes of failure there. We need something more permanent. Which means something completely new… and thus something that will make hard drives (and our ability to read them) obsolete.

And that’s from a purely technological perspective. They’re nontrivial, but I’m confident that technology will rise to the challenge. However, once you start getting into the absolutely bonkers realm of intellectual property law, things get stupid really fast. If technology will rise to the challenge, IP owners and lawmakers seem to be engaged in an ever-escalating race to the bottom of the barrel:

In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are “protected” by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: “The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire.”

Among countless other undesirable things, this means that American record companies that aren’t interested in reissuing old records can stop anyone else from doing so, and can also stop libraries from making those same records readily accessible to scholars who want to use them for noncommercial purposes. Even worse, it means that American libraries cannot legally copy records made before 1972 to digital formats for the purpose of preservation…

Sheer insanity. The Library of Congress appears to be on the right side of the issue, suggesting common-sense recommendations for copyright reform… that will almost certainly never be enacted by IP owners or lawmakers. Still, their “National Recording Preservation Plan” seems like a pretty good idea. Again, it’s a pity that almost none of their recommendations will be enacted, and while the need for Copyright reform is blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only victories we can celebrate in this realm is grassroots opposition to absurd laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA.

I don’t know the way forward. When you look at the economics of the movie industry, as recently laid out by Steven Soderberg in a speech that’s been making the rounds of late (definitely worth a watch, if you’ve got a half hour), you start to see why media companies are so protective of their IP. As currently set up, your movie needs to make 120 million dollars, minimum, before you start to actually turn a profit (and that’s just the marketing costs – you’d have to add on the budget to get a better idea). That, too, is absurd. I don’t envy the position of media companies, but on the other hand, their response to such problems isn’t to fix the problem but to stomp their feet petulantly, hold on to copyrighted works for far too long, and to antagonize their best customers.

That’s the irony of protecting copyright. If you protect it too much, no one actually benefits from it, not even the copyright holders…

Kindle Updates

I have, for the most part, been very pleased with using my Kindle Touch to read over the past couple years. However, while it got the job done, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities, especially when it came to metadata and personal metrics.

Well, Amazon just released a new update to their Kindle software, and mixed in with the usual (i.e. boring) updates to features I don’t use (like “Whispersinc” or Parental Controls), there was this little gem:

The Time To Read feature uses your reading speed to let you know how much time is left before you finish your chapter or before you finish your book. Your specific reading speed is stored only on your Kindle Touch; it is not stored on Amazon servers.

Hot damn, that’s exactly what I was asking for! Of course, it’s all locked down and you can’t really see what your reading speed is (or plot it over time, or by book, etc…), but this is the single most useful update to a device like this that I think I’ve ever encountered. Indeed, the fact that it tells you how much time until you finish both your chapter and the entire book is extremely useful, and it addresses my initial curmudgeonly complaints about the Kindle’s hatred of page numbers and love of percentage.

Time to Read in Action

Will finish this book in about 4 hours!

The notion of measuring book length by time mitigates the issues surrounding book length by giving you a personalized measurement that is relevant and intuitive. No more futzing with the wild variability in page numbers or Amazon’s bizarre location system, you can just peek at the remaining time, and it’s all good.

And I love that they give a time to read for both the current chapter and the entire book. One of the frustrating things about reading an ebook is that you never really knew how long it will take to read a chapter. With a physical book, you can easily flip ahead and see where the chapter ends. Now, ebooks have that personalized time, which is perfect.

I haven’t spent a lot of time with this new feature, but so far, I love it. I haven’t done any formal tracking, but it seems accurate, too (it seems like I’m reading faster than it says, but it’s close). It even seems to recognize when you’ve taken a break (though I’m not exactly sure of that). Of course, I would love it if Amazon would allow us access to the actual reading speed data in some way. I mean, I can appreciate their commitment to privacy, and I don’t think that needs to change either; I’d just like to be able to see some reports on my actual reading speed. Plot it over time, see how different books impact speed, and so on. Maybe I’m just a data visualization nerd, but think of the graphs! I love this update, but they’re still only scratching the surface here. There’s a lot more there for the taking. Let’s hope we’re on our way…

Requiem for Google Reader

This past week, Google dropped a bombshell on a certain segment of internet nerdery: they announced they were going to discontinue Google Reader. For the uninitiated, Reader was an RSS agregator – it allowed you to subscribe to the internet, and collected all that content in one place. It was awesome, I use it every day, and Google is going to turn it off on July 1. It shouldn’t have been so shocking, but it was. It shouldn’t have been so disappointing, but it was. And a big part of this is on me. This post might seem whiny, and I suppose it is, but I am finding this experience interesting (in the Chinese curse sense, but still).

It’s hard to talk about this without seeming hysterical. This isn’t the end of the world, and it’s most certainly not the end of Google. All the petitions and talk of tough lessons and quicky websites (though, for serious, I love that gif) and videos… they’re really just wishful thinking. It’s nice to think that our Google overlords are surprised by the immediate and intense response to what probably seemed like a straightforward business decision, but I don’t think they are. Outrage on the internet happens at the speed of twitter and fades even quicker. We’ll find alternatives (more about this in a moment), we’ll move on, and Google will too. But my view of Google has changed pretty quickly.

Of course, I’m not so naive to think that Google really gives a crap what I think, but I used to stick up for Google. Their “Don’t be Evil” motto was surprisingly effective, and it looked like they walked the walk, too. That’s a rare thing, to be sure, but it also molded the perception of Google to be something idealistic, something with an optimistic vision. We’re drowning in information, and Google was going to help us deal with that. Their applications felt like public services. The shuttering of Reader, while ultimately not that big of a deal in isolation, rips all that artifice away from Google’s image. We caught them being a business, and that just feels like a betrayal. It’s completely unfair and naive, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s also selfish, but why should I care?

For the first time in years, I’m looking into alternatives. Google is forcing me to find an alternative to Reader, but if they’re going to turn off something that so many people rely on so heavily, shouldn’t I look for replacements to all of Google’s other services? I’m surprised by how much I use Google services, and while I can’t see myself replacing Gmail anytime soon, some of this other stuff might not be so necessary.

Speaking of alternatives, I’ve played around with a few, and the one I like the most is Feedly. It’s not perfect, but then, neither was Reader. The transition was easy and seamless – I logged into Google and provided access to Feedly and boom: my entire set of feeds (and it looks like usage history too) was ported over to the new app. Once Google sunsets Reader, Feedly will transition to their backend, built specifically for this purpose. The interface may take some getting used to, but hey, keyboard shortcuts still work and it’s got a much better suite of social sharing and tagging options. I’m a little annoyed by the notion that you need to install some sort of extension to your browser to get it to work, but it still seems like the best option available at the moment. Of course, nothing stops Feedly from acting like douchebags further down the road, but they’re not the only alternative either. There are lots of others. Hell, even Digg (yeah, remember them?) is trying to capitalize on this whole thing.

I still don’t really understand why Reader was such an anathema to Google. A lot of people have mentioned that they could see this coming for a while, and yeah, I think any user of Reader could tell that it wasn’t among Google’s favorite applications. It never got as many updates as, say, Maps or Gmail, and while it had some fantastic and innovative community features like sharing and commenting (stuff that you never saw much of when it came to RSS readers), Google completely neutered all that stuff in the name of pointless integration with Google+. Google did a redesign a little while back and, while I certainly can see why they did it and I value consistency, they made Reader harder to use. I mean, the point of this application is to allow you to read stuff – why are you slathering everything in grey and dedicating so much of the screen to unnecessary global navigation? Now, I wasn’t a big user of their community features and while I wasn’t a fan of the redesign, it was still the best option out there.

Google’s stated reason for getting rid of Reader is that usage was down and they feel like they’ve spread themselves too thin with the number of services they support. I can sympathize with that second part, but the first part is ridiculous. The above mentioned changes to community features and the redesign were tailored towards reducing usage of the application. That was their whole purpose – Google wanted their community on G+, which is fair enough, I guess, but then it seems disingenuous to turn around and close the app because usage is down. Rather, that’s not really an explanation. It feels like something else is going on here and it’s hard to put my finger on it…

People have speculated that the reason for the shutdown is because they couldn’t find a way to monetize it, but that doesn’t seem right. At the very least, there were no ads on it, and while people don’t particularly enjoy ads, they’d probably like them better than not having reader at all. I’ve always considered Google’s strategy to be something along the lines of: Increased internet usage in general means that we can serve more ads to more people. Reader certainly accomplished that goal, and it did so for a lot of people. Usage may have been down, but it was still large and drove massive amounts of traffic. Just look at the graph on this Buzzfeed article. It’s not at all comprehensive and there are probably a lot of caveats, but I would bet the general thrust is correct – far more people discover content through Reader than they do on G+…

In a more general sense, this development is reopening the debate about RSS and the relevancy of things like Blogs, here in the age of Facebook and Twitter. There are valid concerns about this stuff, especially when it comes to average users of the internet. And I don’t mean that as a slight on average users. I know the ins and outs of RSS because I’m a nerd and my profession requires that sort of knowledge. But who wants to sit down and figure this stuff out if you don’t have to? People are busy, they have jobs, they have kids, they don’t have time to futz with markup languages, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Google Reader was a step in the right direction, but Google never really developed that aspect of it (which seems to have faded away) and I get the impression that they have lost faith in RSS as a way to help us all make sense of the morass of information on the internet.

This is a generous interpretation of Google’s actions, but I like that better than the cynical explanations about difficulty monetizing Reader or Google’s official line about usage. On the other hand, what is Google doing to help us sift through the detritus of the internets? I don’t think Google+ is the solution, and Search has its own issues. That’s why the people like me, looking for ways to aggregate and analyze data in efficient ways, were big users of Reader in the first place. It’s why we’re so hurt by the decision to shut it down. It would be one thing if usage of Reader was declining because there was a better way to consume content (which, I’m sure is debatable to some Social evangelists, but that’s a topic for another post). Closing Reader now seems premature and baffling.

So Google cut me, they cut me deep. It’s partly my own fault; I let my guard down. I’m confident that this malaise will pass and that I’ll stop trying to find ways to spite them, but I won’t see Google the same way I did before. I’m curious to see how Google moves forward. This isn’t the first time they shuttered an application, but it might be the most widely-used and beloved service they’ve given the axe… On its face, this move seems as stupid as Netflix’s Qwikster debacle. Netflix’s solution was easy, they saw the error in their ways and reversed course. The response to that wasn’t immediate, but Netflix is doing much better now. Google has a more difficult road ahead. Of course, this decision isn’t as breathtakingly stupid as Qwikster and like I said above, everyone will probably move on in pretty short order. But Google may face an image problem. I don’t think just turning Reader back on would do the trick, as the damage is already done and it wasn’t really a direct consequence of the action. The damage here is more than the sum of its parts. Can Google repair that? I’m open to the possibility, but it might be a while…

Recent and Future Podcastery

I have a regular stable of podcasts that generally keep me happy on a weekly basis, but as much as I love all of them, I will sometimes greedily consume them all too quickly, leaving me with nothing. Plus, it’s always good to look out for new and interesting stuff. Quite frankly, I’ve not done a particularly good job keeping up with the general podcasting scene, so here’s a few things I caught up with recently (or am planning to listen to in the near future):

  • Idle Thumbs – This is primarily a video game podcast, though there are some interesting satellite projects too. I have to admit that my video game playing time has reduced itself considerably in the past year or so, but I still sometimes enjoy listening to this sort of thing. Plus, the Idle Book Club is, well, exactly what it sounds like – a book club podcast, with a book a month. I’ve not actually listened to much of any of this stuff, but it seems like fertile ground.
  • Firewall & Iceberg Podcast – The podcast from famed television critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg. It focuses, not surprisingly, on television shows, which is something that I’ve been watching more of lately (due to the ability to mainline series on Netflix, etc…) Again, I haven’t heard much, but they seem pretty knowledgeable and affable. I suspect this will be one of those shows that I download after I watch a series to see what they have to say about it.
  • Film Pigs Podcast – A movie podcast that’s ostensibly right in my wheelhouse, and it’s a pretty fun podcast, though I’m not entirely sure how bright it’s future really is at this point given that they seem to be permanently missing one member of their normal crew and publish on a bi-monthly schedule. Still, there’s some fun stuff here, and I’ll probably listen to more of their back catalog when I run out of my regulars…

Speaking of that regular stable, this is what it’s currently looking like:

There are a few others that I hit up on an inconsistent basis too, but those are the old standbys…

Netflix’s House of Cards

Last weekend, Netflix debuted their highly anticipated original series House of Cards. Based on an old BBC series, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, the show certainly has an impressive pedigree and has been garnering mostly positive reviews. From what I’ve watched so far, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of my favorite television shows, but it’s on the same playing field, which is pretty impressive for original content from an internet-based company that was predicated solely on repackaging and reselling existing content from other sources. It’s a good show, but the most interesting things about the series are the meta-discussions surrounding the way it was produced and released.

Like the way free music streaming services are changing the narrative of that industry, I’m seeing something similar happening with Netflix… and like the music industry, I don’t really know where this will end up. Netflix certainly fell on hard times a couple years ago; after a perfectly understandable price hike and the inexplicable Qwikster debacle their stock price plummeted from 300+ to around 60. Since then, it’s been more or less ping-ponging up and and down in the 60-140 range, depending on various business events (earnings reports, etc…) and newly licensed content.

Recently, the stock has been rising rapidly, thanks to new content deals with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros., and now because of House of Cards. Perhaps fed up with wrangling the rising cost of streaming content (which are ever rising at a spectacular pace and cutting into Netflix’s meager profit margins), Netflix has started to make their own content. Early last year, Netflix launched Lillyhammer to middling reviews and not a lot of fanfare… I have not watched the series (and quite frankly, the previews look like a parody or SNL sketch or something), but it perhaps represented Netflix’s dry run for this recent bid for original content. A lot of the interesting things about House of Cards‘ release were presaged by that previous series.

For instance, the notion of releasing the entire 13 episode run of the first season on day one of release. Netflix has done a lot of research on their customers’ viewing habits, observing that people will often mainline old series (or previous seasons of current series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad), watching entire seasons or even several over the course of a few days or weeks. I’ve wondered about this sort of thing in the past, because this is the way I prefer to consume content. I can never really get into the rhythm of “destination” television, except in very limited scenarios (the only show I watch on a weekly basis at the time it airs is Game of Thrones, because I like the show and the timeslot fits into my schedule). There are some shows that I look forward to every week, but even those usually get stored away on the DVR until I can watch several at once. So what I’m saying here is that this release of all episodes at once is right up my alley, and I’m apparently not alone.

With the lack of physical shelf space or broadcast schedule needed, I suspect this would also lead to shows actually getting to finish their season instead of being canceled after two episodes, which could be an interesting development. On the other hand, what kinds of shows will this produce? Netflix greenlit this series based on a mountain of customer data, not just about how viewers consumed TV series, but also on their response to Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, and probably a hundred other data-points.

And the series does kinda feel like it’s built in a lab. Everything is top notch about the show. Great actors, high production value, solid writing, the show is optimized for that binge-watching experience. Is that a good thing? In this case, it seems to be working well enough. But can that sort of data-driven model hold up over time? Of course, that’s nothing new in the entertainment industry. Look no further than the whole vampire/zombie resurgence of the past decade or so. But I wonder if Netflix will ever do something that sets the trends, rather than chasing the data.

What does this all mean for the world of streaming? Netflix appears to have stemmed the tide of defecting subscribers, but will they gain new subscribers simply because of their original content? Will this be successful enough for other streaming players to take the same gamble? Will we have Hulu and Amazon series? Will we have to subscribe to 8 different services to keep up with this? Or will Netflix actually license out their original content to the likes of Cable or Network television? Ok, that’s probably unlikely, but on the other hand, it could be a big source of revenue and a way to expand their audience.

Will Netflix be able to keep growing thanks to these original content efforts? House of Cards is just the first of several original series being released this year. Will the revived Arrested Development (season 4, coming in May) draw in new subscribers? Or the new Ricky Gervais show? Will any of this allow Netflix to expand their streaming content beyond the laughable movie selection they currently command (seriously, they have a good TV selection, but their movie selection is horrible)? Will we ever get that dream service, a single subscription that will give you access to everything you could ever want to watch? Technologically, this is all possible, but technology won’t drive that, and I’m curious if such a thing will ever come to fruition (Netflix or not!) In the meantime, I’m most likely going to finish off House of Cards, which is probably a good thing for Netflix.

What’s in a Book Length?

I mentioned recently that book length is something that’s been bugging me. It seems that we have a somewhat elastic relationship with length when it comes to books. The traditional indicator of book length is, of course, page number… but due to variability in font size, type, spacing, format, media, and margins, the hallowed page number may not be as concrete as we’d like. Ebooks theoretically provide an easier way to maintain a consistent measurement across different books, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s delivered on that promise. So how are we to know the lengths of our books? Fair warning, this post is about to get pretty darn nerdy, so read on at your own peril.

In terms of page numbers, books can vary wildly. Two books with the same amount of pages might be very different in terms of actual length. Let’s take two examples: Gravity’s Rainbow (784 pages) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (752 pages). Looking at page number alone, you’d say that Gravity’s Rainbow is only slightly longer than Goblet of Fire. With the help of the magical internets, let’s a closer look at the print inside the books (click image for a bigger version):

Pages from Gravitys Rainbow and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

As you can see, there is much more text on the page in Gravity’s Rainbow. Harry Potter has a smaller canvas to start with (at least, in terms of height), but larger margins, more line spacing, and I think even a slightly larger font. I don’t believe it would be an exaggeration to say that when you take all this into account, the Harry Potter book is probably less than half the length of Gravity’s Rainbow. I’d estimate it somewhere on the order of 300-350 pages. And that’s even before we get into things like vocabulary and paragraph breaks (which I assume would also serve to inflate Harry Potter’s length.) Now, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the variability of page numbers.

Ebooks present a potential solution. Because Ebooks have different sized screens and even allow the reader to choose font sizes and other display options, page numbers start to seem irrelevant. So Ebook makers devised what’s called reflowable documents, which adapt their presentation to the output device. For example, Amazon’s Kindle uses an Ebook format that is reflowable. It does not (usually) feature page numbers, instead relying on a percentage indicator and the mysterious “Location” number.

The Location number is meant to be consistent, no matter what formatting options you’re using on your ereader of choice. Sounds great, right? Well, the problem is that the Location number is pretty much just as arbitrary as page numbers. It is, of course, more granular than a page number, so you can easily skip to the exact location on multiple devices, but as for what actually constitutes a single “Location Number”, that is a little more tricky.

In looking around the internets, it seems there is distressingly little information about what constitutes an actual Location. According to this thread on Amazon, someone claims that: “Each location is 128 bytes of data, including formatting and metadata.” This rings true to me, but unfortunately, it also means that the Location number is pretty much meaningless.

The elastic relationship we have with book length is something I’ve always found interesting, but what made me want to write this post was when I wanted to pick a short book to read in early December. I was trying to make my 50 book reading goal, so I wanted something short. In looking through my book queue, I saw Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Stars My Destination. It’s one of those books I consistently see at the top of best SF lists, so it’s always been on my radar, and looking at Amazon, I saw that it was only 236 pages long. Score! So I bought the ebook version and fired up my Kindle only to find that in terms of locations, it’s the longest book I have on my Kindle (as of right now, I have 48 books on there). This is when I started looking around at Locations and trying to figure out what they meant. As it turns out, while the Location numbers provide a consistent reference within the book, they’re not at all consistent across books.

I did a quick spot check of 6 books on my Kindle, looking at total Location numbers, total page numbers (resorting to print version when not estimated by Amazon), and file size of the ebook (in KB). I also added a column for Locations per page number and Locations per KB. This is an admittedly small sample, but what I found is that there is little consistency among any of the numbers. The notion of each Location being 128 bytes of data seems useful at first, especially when you consider that the KB information is readily available, but because that includes formatting and metadata, it’s essentially meaningless. And the KB number also includes any media embedded in the book (i.e. illustrations crank up the KB, which distorts any calculations you might want to do with that data).

It turns out that The Stars My Destination will probably end up being relatively short, as the page numbers would imply. There’s a fair amount of formatting within the book (which, by the way, doesn’t look so hot on the Kindle), and doing spot checks of how many Locations I pass when cycling to the next screen, it appears that this particular ebook is going at a rate of about 12 Locations per cycle, while my previous book was going at a rate of around 5 or 6 per cycle. In other words, while the total Locations for The Stars My Destination were nearly twice what they were for my previously read book, I’m also cycling through Locations at double the rate. Meaning that, basically, this is the same length as my previous book.

Various attempts have been made to convert Location numbers to page numbers, with low degrees of success. This is due to the generally elastic nature of a page, combined with the inconsistent size of Locations. For most books, it seems like dividing the Location numbers by anywhere from 12-16 (the linked post posits dividing by 16.69, but the books I checked mostly ranged from 12-16) will get you a somewhat accurate page number count that is marginally consistent with print editions. Of course, for The Stars My Destination, that won’t work at all. For that book, I have to divide by 40.86 to get close to the page number.

Why is this important at all? Well, there’s clearly an issue with ebooks in academia, because citations are so important for that sort of work. Citing a location won’t get readers of a paper anywhere close to a page number in a print edition (whereas, even using differing editions, you can usually track down the quote relatively easily if a page number is referenced). On a personal level, I enjoy reading ebooks, but one of the things I miss is the easy and instinctual notion of figuring out how long a book will take to read just by looking at it. Last year, I was shooting for reading quantity, so I wanted to tackle shorter books (this year, I’m trying not to pay attention to length as much and will be tackling a bunch of large, forbidding tomes, but that’s a topic for another post)… but there really wasn’t an easily accessible way to gauge the length. As we’ve discovered, both page numbers and Location numbers are inconsistent. In general, the larger the number, the longer the book, but as we’ve seen, that can be misleading in certain edge cases.

So what is the solution here? Well, we’ve managed to work with variable page numbers for thousands of years, so maybe no solution is really needed. A lot of newer ebooks even contain page numbers (despite the variation in display), so if we can find a way to make that more consistent, that might help make things a little better. But the ultimate solution would be to use something like Word Count. That’s a number that might not be useful in the midst of reading a book, but if you’re really looking to determine the actual length of the book, Word Count appears to be the best available measurement. It would also be quite easily calculated for ebooks. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it’s better than page numbers or location numbers.

In the end, I enjoy using my Kindle to read books, but I wish they’d get on the ball with this sort of stuff. If you’re still reading this (Kudos to you) and want to read some more babbling about ebooks and where I think they should be going, check out my initial thoughts and my ideas for additional metadata and the gamification of reading. The notion of ereaders really does open up a whole new world of possibilities… it’s a shame that Amazon and other ereader companies keep their platforms so locked down and uninteresting. Of course, reading is its own reward, but I really feel like there’s a lot more we can be doing with our ereader software and hardware.

Companies Don’t Force You Into Piracy

But let’s be honest with ourselves, that doesn’t mean that all those same media companies don’t suck. Let me back up a minute, as this is an old argument. Most recently, this article from The Guardian bemoans the release window system:

A couple of months ago, I purchased the first season of the TV series Homeland from the iTunes Store. I paid $32 for 12 episodes that all landed seamlessly in my iPad. I gulped them in a few days and was left in a state of withdrawal. Then, on 30 September, when season 2 started over, I would have had no alternative but to download free but illegal torrent files. Hundreds of thousands of people anxious to find out the whereabouts of the Marine turncoat pursued by the bi-polar CIA operative were in the same quandary

This is, of course, stupid. This guy does have a pretty simple alternative: wait a few months to watch the show. It’s a shitty alternative, to be sure, but that doesn’t excuse piracy. As Sonny Bunch notes:

Of course you have an alternative you ninny! It’s not bread for your starving family. You’re not going to die if you have to wait six months to watch a TV show. You’re not morally justified in your thievery.

Others have also responded as such:

This argument is both ludicrous, and wrong. Ludicrous, because if piracy is actually wrong, it doesn’t get less wrong simply because you can’t have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay. You are not entitled to shoplift Birkin bags on the grounds that they are ludicrously overpriced, and you cannot say you had no alternative but to break into an the local ice cream parlor at 2 am because you are really craving some Rocky Road and the insensitive bastards refused to stay open 24/7 so that you could have your favorite sweet treat whenever you want. You are not forced into piracy because you can’t get a television show at the exact moment when you want to see it; you are choosing piracy.

This is all well and good, and the original Guardian article has a poor premise… but that doesn’t mean that the release window system isn’t antiquated and doesn’t suck. The original oped could easily be tweaked to omit the quasi-justification for piracy. Instead, the piracy is included and thus the article overreaches. On the flip side, the responses also tend to overstate their case, usually including something like this: “you can’t have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay.” This is true, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for consumers. And with respect to streaming, the media company stance is just as ludicrous as those defending piracy.

Here’s a few examples I’ve run into:

  • HBOGO – This is a streaming service that HBO makes available to it’s cable subscribers. It’s got a deep back catalog of their original content, as well as much of their current movie lineup. Sounds great, right? What’s my problem? I can’t actually watch HBOGO on my TV. For some unfathomable reason, Comcast blocks HBOGO from working on most streaming devices. It works on my computer, and it was recently launched on XBOX 360 (but I have a PS3 and I’m not shelling out another couple hundred bucks just so I can gain this single ability), but is otherwise not available. I’d like to watch the (ten year old) second season of Deadwood, but I can’t do so unless I sit at my desk to watch it. Now, yes, I’m whining here about the fact that I can’t watch this content how and where I choose, but is it really so unreasonable to want to watch a television show… on my television? Is this entitlement, or just common sense? How many dedicated streaming devices do I have to own before I can claim exhaustion? 4? 6? 15? Of course, I’ve got other options. I could purchase or rent the DVDs… but why do that when I’m paying for this other service?
  • Books and Ebooks – So I’d like to read a book called Permutation City, by Greg Egan. It was originally published in 1994, frequents Best SF Novel lists, and has long since fallen out of print. This is actually understandable, as Egan is an author with a small, niche audience and limited mainstream appeal. None of his novels get big print runs to start with, and despite all the acclaim, I doubt even this book would sell a lot of copies here in 2012. Heck, I’d even understand it if the publisher claimed that this was low on their ebook conversion priority list. But it’s not. The ebook is available in the UK, but I guess the publisher has not secured rights in the US? I get that these sorts of rights situations are complicated, but patronizing a library or purchasing a used copy isn’t going to make the rights holders any money on this stuff.
  • DVD on Linux – I’ve got multiple computers and one runs linux (at various other times, I’ve only had linux PCs). One of the things I like to do for this blog is take a screenshot of a movie I’m writing about. However, it is illegal for me to even play my DVDs on my linux box. These are purchased DVDs, not pirated anything. To be sure, I’m capable of playing DVDs on my linux PCs, but I’m technically breaking the law when doing so. There are various complications in all sorts of digital formats that make this a touchy topic. Even something as simple as MP3s trip up various linux distros, not even getting into stuff like iTunes or DRMed formats.
  • Blu-Ray – A few months ago, I wrote about a movie called Detention. I loved it and wrote a glowing review. Wanting to include a few screenshots to really sell the movie to my (admittedly low in quantity) readers, but when I plopped the BD into my shiny new BD drive on my computer, the BD player (Cyberlink PowerDVD) informed me that I wasn’t able to play the disc. I was admittedly lazy at the time and didn’t try too hard to circumvent this restriction (something about reinstalling the software (which I’m not even sure I have access to) and downloading patches and purchasing some key or something?) and to this day, I don’t even know if it was just an issue with that one disc, or if it’s all BDs. But still, who wins here? I get that the IP owners don’t want to encourage piracy… but I don’t see how frustrating me (a paying customer) serves them in the end. It’s not like this “protection” stops or even slows down pirates. All it does is frustrate paying customers.
  • iTunes – I don’t even really know the answer to this, but if I don’t have an AppleTV, is there a way to view iTunes stuff on my television? I don’t have an iPad, but if I bought one, would I be able to plug the iPad into the TV and stream video that way? I think there is software I can buy on PC that will stream iTunes… but should I have to purchase extra software or hardware (above and beyond the 5-10 devices I have right now) just to make iTunes work? And the last time I toyed with this type of software (I believe it was called PlayOn), it didn’t work very well. Constant interruptions and low quality video. The fact that there are even questions surrounding this at all is a failure. For the most part, I can avoid this because Amazon and Netflix have good selections and actually work on all of my devices (i.e. they actually care to have me as a customer, which is nice).

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and pirate season 2 of Deadwood or any of the other things I mentioned above. Frustration does not excuse piracy. No, I’m just going to play a game or read a different book or go out to a bar or something. I have no shortage of things to do, so while I do want to watch any number of HBO shows on HBOGO, I can just as easily occupy my time with other activities (though, as above, I’ve certainly run into issues with other stuff). Pretty soon, I may realize that I don’t actually need cable, at which point I’ll cancel that service and… no one wins. I don’t get to watch the show I want, and HBO and Comcast are out a customer. Why? I really don’t know. If someone can explain why Comcast won’t let me stream HBOGO, I’m all ears. They don’t have the content available ondemand, and they’re not losing me as a customer by allowing me to watch the shows (again, you have to be an HBO subscriber to get HBOGO).

I get that these are all businesses and need to make money, but I don’t understand the insistence on alienating their own customers, frequently and thoroughly. I’m not turning to piracy, I’m just a frustrated customer. I’ve already bought a bunch of devices and services so that I can watch this stuff, and yet I’m still not able to watch even a small fraction of what I want. Frustration doesn’t excuse piracy, but I don’t see why I should be excusing these companies for being so annoying about when and where and how I can consume their content. It’s especially frustrating because so much of this is done in the name of piracy. I suppose this post is coming off petulant and whiny on my part, but if you think I’m bad, just try listening to the MPAA or similar institution talk about piracy and the things they do to their customers to combat it. In essence, these companies hurt their best customers to spite non-customers. So I don’t pirate shows or movies or books, but then, I often don’t get to watch or read the ones I want to either. In a world where media companies are constantly whining about declining sales, it’s a wonder that they don’t actually, you know, try to sell me stuff I can watch/read. I guess they find it easier to assume I’m a thief and treat me as such.