Loose Ends 1

The end of the year is approaching–hopefully you were already aware of that–so I thought I’d close out a couple of open issues before the calendar turns over.

I’ve talked about Amazon’s $50 tablet a couple of times, most recently in September, when I said the thing might actually be more useful than expected. Apparently a lot of people agreed with me. Amazon dropped the price to $35 as one of their Black Friday deals, and they sold a heck of a lot of them. I don’t know how many, but they quickly went into backorder status. People who bought them Friday evening received them just in time for Christmas.

I’m speaking as a recipient, not a purchaser here, by the way. Yes, there was a Fire under our tree this year (sorry). Many thanks to Maggie for the gift.

After four days of playing with it, I’m actually impressed.

Yes, it’s made of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s quite solid, no creaks or flexes. That solidity does come at a price; it’s heavier than I expected, but that’s a reasonable tradeoff. It’s still light enough to hold one-handed for extended periods.

As expected, the speaker sucks. There’s no bass, and the sound distorts at even moderate volume. But nobody in their right mind would use a tablet’s built-in speakers anyway. Plug in headphones or external speakers, and the sound is perfectly acceptable.

The 1024×600 resolution is, well, odd. Held vertically, it looks skinny; horizontally it feels like sitting in the last row of a very big movie theater. That makes video something of a peculiar experience. The Fire plays video surprisingly well, at least in my limited tests, but the aspect ratio doesn’t quite fit either standard or high definition content. The distortion isn’t horrible, but it’s noticeable if you look for it. On the other hand, the tablet is light enough that you can hold it close to your face, making the seven inch screen much less of an issue. It’s still too small to completely fill your visual field, but if you don’t insist on your TV shows being immersive experiences, it’s quite adequate.

I expected the size and resolution would make for a decent reading experience, and I was right. I’m pleased enough that I’m making it my primary reader. It’s much more comfortable to hold for a couple of hours at a time than my nine-inch Nexus and the display is crisp enough that I’m not worried about eye strain. And it’s small enough to make it easy to slip into a pocket and take it along for BART reading.

There are some negatives. For one thing, the screen is a fingerprint magnet. Keep a lint-free cloth handy because you’ll be wiping the screen every couple of days. For another, it can be quite sluggish when switching between apps. Once I’m into an app, it’s usually fine, but I’ve had several five second waits while the tablet frees up memory.

And there are some quirks around the way the device handles user profiles. You can have two “adult” accounts and several “child” accounts, but only the first adult account can use system-level controls. That makes the second adult essentially a child, only with no age-based restrictions on content. It’s unlikely to be a problem for most users, but it’s something to keep in mind when you first set up the device–the first adult account should probably be the person who will be using the tablet most.

The biggest problem, though, is Amazon’s walled garden. I expected there would be some issues in that regard, but the details have tripped me a couple of times. Remember that SD card slot? It’s there, and it works, but Amazon seems to have made it very difficult for third-party apps to use it. Moving your music and video to SD is straightforward, but Amazon explicitly blocks you from moving other media types–including books–to SD. They prefer you to keep anything other than music and video on the internal memory and shuffle it off to cloud storage when you run short of space.

Third-party apps, as far as I can tell, only get read access to the SD card. Since this is my first Amazon device, most of my books are in epub format, which Amazon’s reader doesn’t handle. So I use a third-party reader–the same one I’ve used for a couple of years on my Nexii. I’ve had to load my books by putting the card in my computer. It works, but it’s a little cumbersome.

Bottom line: I like it. It’s well worth the $50 price tag. But be aware of the limitations. This is emphatically not a do-everything device.

More loose ends Thursday. See you then!

More Good News

I’m going to continue with the good news items until I run out of either good news or good cheer.

Remember last week when I talked about that $50 tablet Amazon was rumored to be working on? Well, yesterday it moved from rumor to reality as part of Amazon’s announcement of four new tablets and three Fire TV devices.

Why is this good news? To put it bluntly, it’s not a bad as expected. That may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m serious. If you’re willing to work within Amazon’s infrastructure, this thing could actually be useful.

For one thing, rumor was wrong about the six-inch screen. It’s actually seven inches–my preferred size. Granted, the resolution is fairly low (1024×600), but no matter what Amazon might hope, you weren’t going to be watching a whole lot of video on a screen that size anyway. But that’s definitely good enough for reading ebooks, and if you’ve already got a library outside of the Kindle universe, there are plenty of reader apps in Amazon’s app store–no need to sideload.

8GB of storage isn’t great, but it’s got a microSD slot, so you can expand to 128GB. It’s not going to hold a dedicated music collector’s entire library, but it will hold enough to occupy your ears for days at a time. Yes, as rumored, it does only have a monophonic speaker, but the headphone jack is stereo (or use your Bluetooth headphones or speakers). And even the best tablet speakers are lousy; you would prefer headphones even if the Fire had stereo speakers.

What’s most interesting is that Amazon recognizes that the Fire may be a underpowered for multitasking. The tablet’s sales page actually suggests using it as a dedicated single-use device: put one in the kitchen as a digital cookbook, one in the family room as a TV controller (as I suggested last week), one in the car for backseat entertainment, and so on.

To make single-use practical, they’re offering a bundle deal: buy five, get a sixth free. That makes the per-device cost less than $42, or looked at another way, gives you a 24-core, 48GB tablet with an unusually flexible screen (2048×2400? 1024×3600? 3072×1800?) for $250. OK, six $40 tablets may not really be able to compete head-to-head with a single $250 tablet, but I think it’s a legitimate argument.

If you’re intrigued enough to get one, let me know what you think–or if you decide to get a six-pack and toss one in my direction, I’ll be happy to provide a hands-on report.

In any case, kudos to Amazon for exceeding expectations and producing something better than anyone hoped.

Moving on.

Today’s other bit of good news comes from Lebanon, NH, where librarians continue to make me proud of my former profession.

The backstory is that in July, the Kilton Public Library dedicated a computer to the Tor Project*. Anonymity comes from Tor traffic bouncing through several “nodes” between the user and the destination website. Consequently, the more nodes there are in the network, the more secure communication becomes.

* Follow the link above for details, but in brief, the Tor network provides users with anonymous, encrypted access to the Internet. Consequently, it’s extremely popular with people living in countries that monitor and restrict Internet access, whistleblowers, or anyone who cannot risk having their identity exposed.

So, by volunteering to be a test site for the Library Freedom Project, which aims to set up Tor nodes in as many public libraries as possible, Kilton Public Library contributed a small but significant amount to making the world a safer place.

Fast forward to last week when the Department of Homeland Services sent a letter to the Lebanon Police Department, warning that the Tor network could be abused by criminals and terrorists. The police brought the DHS alert to the attention of the library, and in the face of concerns about a possible public relations hit through associating the library with “pornography and drug trafficking,” the Tor node was temporarily shut down.

Which brings us to Tuesday. Kilton’s library board voted in favor of reinstating the node. It was turned on as soon as the vote concluded, and the LFP’s experiment continues.

Thank you, Kilton Public Library–librarians and board members alike.

Fire Sale

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon will be releasing a $50 tablet “in time for the holidays”.

Multiple tech sites are picking up on the story and asking the question “Would you buy a $50 tablet?” I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is “Would you buy a $50 tablet from Amazon?”

Let’s talk about that a bit.

This is Amazon, the company that is perfectly willing to take a loss on hardware because they know they can make up for it in software. In the case of tablets, that “software” isn’t apps, it’s books, movies, and music. As best I can tell (keeping in mind that I don’t own an Amazon device), each new version of their customized version of Android makes it just a little harder to bring your own media in from outside the Amazon ecosystem. I don’t see the version they ship on this new tablet being any exception to that rule.

Then there’s the tablet itself. The WSJ says it’s going to have a six-inch screen. That’s phablet territory, and a size that manufacturers have concluded doesn’t work for tablets. Heck, it’s getting harder and harder to find seven-inch tablets (my preferred size) outside the bargain bin. That aside, the media experience on a six-inch screen isn’t great. Music is OK–as millions of iPod users will tell you, a screen isn’t really necessary for a purely-audio experience–but video is iffy. Even on a seven-inch screen, video is eye-squintingly small; as best I can tell from forum comments, video is the main driver in making phablets ever-larger. As for books, for all but those with excellent vision, a six-inch screen will mean either tiny print, or frequent page turns. Neither is a desirable user experience.

So would you buy a $50 tablet strictly for audio? Would it change your opinion if you knew that it only had a single monophonic speaker? Mono isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for an audio device–witness the popularity of Sonos’ Play:One and Play:Three devices, both of which are monophonic. But the Sonos gadgets have much higher-quality speakers than anything that could fit in a tablet, even one selling for significantly more than $50, and they also offer the option of pairing two speakers for stereo. It seems unlikely that Amazon’s cheapie tablet would have a similar pairing capability.

One possibility would be that Amazon will position the tablet not so much for its own multimedia capabilities, but more as a glorified remote control for the Fire TV set-top box. But if you don’t already have a Fire TV, that’s another $40 on top of the $50 for the tablet. $90 is squarely in the same range as a Roku box or even an Apple TV–and Apple is expected to announce a new, more powerful version of the Apple TV tomorrow.

I don’t really see a market for Amazon’s little Fire tablet. Unless they have something really spectacular up their sleeve–and, based on the damp thud their Fire Phone made when it hit last year, I don’t think they do–I think the $50 tablet is going to be more of a wet match than a blowtorch when it comes to igniting sales.

Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.


You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?


In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.


And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.

Perverse Hope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

I find it somehow reassuring that the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on clueless politicians and lawyers who create–and try to enforce–completely brain-dead legislation.

For proof, one needs to look no further than a story making the rounds this morning. According to multiple sites, Germany is attempting to prevent the sale of adult e-books during daytime hours.

You read that right. If you want to buy an adult e-book from a German bookseller, you can only do so between 10 PM and 6 AM*, local time.

* If I haven’t screwed up the timezone conversion, that’s 1 PM to 9 PM here on the west coast of the US. Primetime for porn consumption. Remember, kids, don’t use your work computers to buy porn–unless you can justify the expense on the corporate credit card.

This isn’t an old, pre-Internet law being extended into electronic territory. It was passed in 2002 and appears* to be an update of a law dating back to 1954. The new extension to e-books is part of the ongoing review and rating process at the core of the law.

* I took some German in grad school, but have long since forgotten most of it. Accordingly, I’m relying on this article from the Font of All Human Knowledge. If your German–or direct knowledge of German law–is better than mine, please correct any errors you see in my post. Come to think of it, Wikipedia would also appreciate your corrections.

The implementation, as best I can tell, will be for retailers to tag all “youth-endangering” titles and automatically filter them out of all lists and search results during those dangerous hours when kids are awake.

Am I the only one who expects this to go down the way the EU’s charming “Right to be Forgotten” has been handled? There’s no question that Amazon’s German arm will be subject to this law–a corporate entity operating in Germany is logically subject to German Law.

But remember: France now insists that it’s not sufficient for Google to only filter searches for RtbF material in the EU. I expect German politicians* to point with horror to how easy it is to access non-German sites from Germany and thus that their restrictions must be implemented by all sellers. It’s not enough that sellers block sales (and they already do: the big sellers use geolocation to determine where an order is placed from to apply the correct VAT and block sales to regions where titles haven’t been licensed). Even showing the titles, let alone covers and previews, would be a violation.

* And if you don’t think the ongoing anger over the post-Snowden revelations of NSA spying on German lawmakers won’t be a factor, you’re dreaming.

Bets on how long it’ll be before we hear the first demands for Amazon US to hide adult titles during the American afternoon?

More Numbers

Since there seems to be some interest, let’s talk about book sellers and reader tracking a little more. If we don’t, I’m going to have to talk about Charleston, and I really don’t want to do that.

Yes, Amazon does keep track of how much you read. (I’ll keep the focus on the big A for simplicity’s sake, but let’s be honest: so does everyone else.) As we’ve seen, it’s partly for paying royalties on books read through Kindle Unlimited. But they also do it in books you’ve purchased.

Consider: the Number One “me too” feature in the major players’ e-book readers (and many of the minor players’ too) is the ability to synchronize your current reading position across all of your devices. Leave your Kindle home by mistake? No problem, open the Kindle app on your phone and pick up where you left off.

That position information has to be stored somewhere. If the location is under the control of the company that sold you the book, they’ll store it in a way that allows them to access it. Why? Because no data is useless.

If you give a government the ability to tax, they’ll tax. If you give a company the ability to gather data, they’ll gather data*. They may not know what they’re going to do with it, but they’ll think of something.

* And, as we’ve seen over and over again, give a government the ability to gather data and they’ll do just that.

I can’t prove it, but I’d be willing to bet that Amazon uses the amount you read of individual titles in making recommendations. “You read all of Worm Farmers on the Wild Frontier, but gave up halfway through Worm Ranching for Fun and Profit? OK, try Worm Riders of the Frozen North instead of 100 Great Worm Recipes.”

Of course, it’s not the only factor they consider. I’m sure that if they could make a larger profit on the cookbook than the adventure story, they’d push the cookbook. But I digress.

There are other reasons why they’d look at your reading progress. Assuming Amazon is an ethical company (a position I’m unwilling to debate at this time), they might factor your reading progress into the decision whether to put the “Verified Purchase” tag on your review. (Side note: There might need to be some heuristics involved: a one-star review based on the first five pages arguably could be more likely to be legitimate than a five-star review.)

If the notion of Amazon looking over your shoulder bothers you, can you do anything about it? There is the option of moving your reading to an independent reader. As long as you’ve bought the e-book, very few authors will object–though Amazon certainly will!

If it’s a rental or subscription deal, though, the ethics are rather murkier. As FirecatStef pointed out, moving your KU books to a non-Kindle reader will mean the author doesn’t get paid. Maybe you can fool Amazon into thinking you’ve read the whole book by scrolling to the end before you export it. Might work, might not, depending on how smart Amazon’s page counting code is. But if it does work, you run the risk of cheating yourself.

The next couple of paragraphs will make my fellow authors scream.

As an aspiring author, I want you to buy my books. Whether you enjoy the book or not, I’ll enjoy your money. But as a reader, I see one major benefit of subscription services. Traditionally, if I hated a book–truly hate, in the “fling the book across the room” sense–my only recourse is to never buy another book by the same author. But the royalty for the horrible crap I was suckered into buying is already in the author’s bank account*. With a subscription service, I can try something new, secure in the knowledge that if I dislike the book enough that I don’t finish, the author won’t get paid–or at least won’t get a full royalty.

* OK, given my reading speed, it’s likely still only in the vendor’s account, but it will get to the author eventually.

My few cents may not make a difference, but I can hope that if enough people have the same reaction, the writers will either buckle down to improve their skills or give up and find a more lucrative profession. Either way, the average book’s quality will go up.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream, but if we don’t dream, what’s the point of living?

One final thought: No, doing my experimental reading at the library doesn’t give the same benefit as a subscription service. Remember that (a) libraries buy their books and the authors receive royalties, (b) libraries use circulation figures in making later purchases, and (c) libraries don’t track reading progress. If three hundred people check out 500 Uses for a Dead Worm Farmer, even if none of them finish it, the library is going to buy the author’s next book.

Numbers Game

How delightful.

If you don’t care about the publishing industry, you can skip this post.

Last July, I wrote about Kindle Unlimited. If you don’t feel like re-reading that post, the gist of it was that while KU and similar subscription services were a good deal for readers, they were less so for writers. Amazon is about to make it better for writers*.

* No, I couldn’t type that with a straight face.

The way KU pays royalties today is simple: If a reader makes it through 10% of your book, you get paid. Less than 10%, you get nothing. Of course, you don’t know how much you’ll be paid, because what you get is a share of the “KDP Select Global Fund,” which varies every month according to a formula that Amazon keeps secret.

So if you publish a 250 page novel through KU and ten people read at least the first 25 pages this month, you get ten shares of the June pool. Mind you, your writing buddy who specializes in shorter works only needs to get ten people to read two pages of his 20 page novella to get the same ten shares, but who cares? You’re getting paid.

And here we see part of the reason why the value of a share keeps dropping. KU has been flooded with novellas, the number of qualifying reads has gone up faster than subscription income, and the per-read payment shrinks. In May, the payout was $1.37 per read.

Amazon’s got a fix. They’re going to reduce the value of a quickly-written, indifferently-edited novella. Effective July 1, payment will be made per page read. Can’t find anyone who can make it through the first chapter of your 500 page epic about Swedish worm farmers in the first century BC? Don’t sweat it, because you’ll still get paid for both of the readers who made it to page 2.

The only real question is how much you’ll get paid per page read. As far as anyone can tell, the fund will still be fed the same way as it has in the past. According to Roger Packer, Amazon has promised that the fund will be “in excess of $11 million” for July and August. The May fund was $10.8 million.

Amazon’s examples are based on a payout of 10 cents per page read; Packer points out that means authors will receive the same amount of money under the new plan if the average read is fourteen pages. Fourteen pages seems like an awfully low number, even for a pool dominated by 20-25 page novellas, but who knows, maybe it’s correct. If so, all I need is for ten people to make it through the first chapter of my worm farmer novel, and I can take Maggie out to dinner at the burrito joint down the street to celebrate.

Since Amazon doesn’t release figures on how many pages have been read, it’s all guesswork at this point. I’ve seen estimates of per-page payouts as high as Amazon’s 10 cents per page and as low as half a cent per page.

At half a cent per page, I’ll need those ten people to make it all the way through the book before Maggie and I can have that celebratory dinner. Hope everyone loves the round-up scene (“Ya! Git along there, Little Squirmy!”)

Seriously, I can’t see this working out to higher payments for anyone except the authors whose works are so awful that nobody ever made it past the 10% mark. There are probably a few–but they’re going to have to attract a lot of eyeballs to pay for the bottle of bubbly they’re buying to toast their first royalty check.

Words About Words

I don’t talk about the publishing industry very often on this blog. That might seem a little odd–this is a writer’s blog, after all. But in reality, most publishing news is concerned with royalty rates, rights management, and corporate mergers and acquisitions. Riveting for writers, but sleep-inducing for 99% of my readers.

However, every so often a story with more general appeal appeal turns up. Oddly, they seem to travel in packs. Today, we’ve got a quartet of publishing stories with technological angles.

Over at Publishing Perspectives, Mark Piesing has a piece on robojournalism and robowriting. Fascinating, really. Yahoo uses software to write thousands of stories every week for its Fantasy Sports sites. AP uses programs to generate thousands of quarterly earning reports. Some companies use the technology to produce company reports and online customer service. If you’ve ever thought the customer service rep in your online chat seemed a bit robotic, you might have been right. But perhaps not: Mr. Piesing cites a study in which readers found a robot-written report of a football game more credible than one written by a real reporter.

Mr. Piesing seems to believe that robojournalism is the future of the industry–he tells us that, according to unnamed commentators, “90% of journalism read by the public will be written by robots” within a decade.

My immediate reaction was that he was hopelessly pessimistic. I–and Mr. Piesing’s experts–don’t believe software will ever be able to replace investigative reporters. Can you imagine a program replacing our buddy Jaxon: uncovering and reporting the multitude of human failures that led to the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch?

But then I started thinking more deeply. There’s a key phrase in that quote above: “read by the public”. How many people are actually reading Jaxon’s articles? How many more people read the headline, think “Another boring bridge problem,” and move on to the Sports section?

Next time you go shopping, take a look at the magazines near the register. How many people do you see sneaking a peek inside? The circulation figures don’t begin to give a full picture of how many people read those journals.

Can you honestly tell me that any of the articles were written by humans?

Moving on.

Amazon is getting a fair amount of press for its Kindle Convert software. Stories are billing it as the text equivalent of CD ripping software, in that it allows you to convert your physical books into ebooks (Kindle format only, of course), just as a CD can be converted into mp3s.

Never mind the fact that the user reviews are uniformly negative, or that scanning books is considerably more labor-intensive than ripping a CD. News stories talk about Amazon’s encouragement of piracy and conspiracy to steal from authors. Let’s face it: ebooks are already easily available across the Internet. Kindle Convert isn’t going to make a bit of difference in either direction. The current Amazon sales rank (#41 in Software, squarely between Norton Security and H&R Block Tax Software) is a direct reflection of the current free publicity and heavily discounted price ($19, previously $49). My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of the copies sold since the price drop will either never be used, or will be used to convert illicitly-downloaded books into a Kindle-friendly format.

Speaking of Amazon, have you considered the implications of their recommendations? When you look at a book, they suggest others you should buy. Those recommendations come, not from any similarity between the books or any assessment of quality, but from purchase records: other people bought them at the same time they bought the one you’re looking at.

A company called trajectory thinks they have a better mousetraprecommendation tool. According to a piece in Publishers Weekly, their software classifies the content of books with regard to more than thirty attributes, including mood, pace, and intensity. That allows them to recommend similar books in very much the same way that Pandora recommends similar music. And, as with Pandora, the more books they’re able to classify, the better their recommendations will get.

Currently, trajectory’s focus is on selling to libraries and booksellers, but they’re also looking to sell recommendations to self-published authors. That’s a little worrisome. If writers can bias the system to preferentially promote their book when certain attributes come up, what’s the point of trajectory doing the analysis in the first place? And, speaking from the author’s point of view, if trajectory catches on with booksellers, getting that preferential placement could become a “must do”. Can you imagine the bidding wars for keywords that would link to your book from the current bestsellers?

Finally, here’s an art project that completely misses the point. Thijs Biersteker has created a book cover that uses facial recognition software to decide whether to allow you to read the book. If you have a skeptical expression, the cover engages a lock, preventing you from opening the book.

The artist explains that the book has “already been judged and awarded by an international jury, so all that is left is to approach the content of this book without any judgement.”

Excuse me? I should abandon my own critical faculties and make my reading decision solely on the basis of a stranger’s opinion?

I guess that’s one way to avoid bad reviews. If I can’t form my own opinion, I certainly can’t do a proper review.

Hey, maybe I can put a mask showing the proper “serious reading expression” on my scanner, use Kindle Convert to convert Biersteker’s book into electronic form, and then feed it to trajectory’s software, and pass the output to a roboreporter to write my review.

Bets on the number of stars RoboReviewer will give?

Bits and Pieces: Amazon and Google

A few quick takes today.

First up, Amazon and Hachette have come to an agreement. Amazon is once again filling orders for Hachette titles, and authors will start earning royalties again. Yay.

So, of course, the Internet’s arteries are filling with the new cholesterol*: analyses of who “won” the deal. Given that terms of the contract haven’t been released, it’s all guesswork. We’ll have to wait and see whose profits go up before we can anoint the true winner.

* Seriously, this sort of article is becoming more and more common. As far as I can tell, it started with local sports coverage analyzing trades, but it’s spread to every event that involves two or more sides. US and China sign a trade agreement: who won? Research probe lands on comet: “Bad deal for comet!” I blame the ongoing gamification of every human interaction.

What I found interesting was Hachette’s assurance that “the percent of revenue on which Hachette authors’ e-book royalties are based will not decrease under this agreement.” Presumably, it’s not going to increase either, or the publisher would have made that the lead. Most author’s e-book royalties are set as a percentage of what the publisher gets, rather than a fixed dollar* amount. So if Hachette emerges as the winner by proving that they can net more dollars by pricing their titles over $9.99, their authors will also come out ahead. That’s going to be a tough sell, though, given how many readers don’t understand why an e-book would cost more than a paperback.

* Or fixed cents. Let’s be realistic here.


Another bit of Amazon news. Back in July, we talked about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited subscription plan. In discussing the benefit to the author, I said “the author gets an unknown percentage of an unknown amount.” Roger Packer has a good summary of just what authors with books in the KU plan are getting. Read the article; even if you’re not an author, it’s a bucket of reality to the face.

In short, after three plus months, KU is a win for Amazon and for readers, but not so great for the authors. The total size of the pool has been climbing steadily, implying that more readers are signing up, but the per-read payment to authors has dropped every month. The pie is getting bigger, but the number of pieces it gets cut into is climbing faster. Simple logic tells us that reads per subscriber are climbing faster than subscribers.

Moving on.


My Nexus 7 tablet got the upgrade to Lollipop yesterday. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not glued to the tablet–I use velcro so I can put it down when I take a shower–so I’ve only used Lollipop a few hours. Early reaction: It’s not making much of a difference to me. I’m neutral on the graphic changes*, but the more substantive changes are slight negatives.

In particular, the UI change to the status bar is a step backward for me. I used to use it mainly to go to Settings. That takes one swipe and one tap in KitKat. In Lollipop, it’s one swipe and two taps. Over the course of a day, that’s going to cost me four or five seconds.

* With the exception of the changes to the “Back,” “Home,” and “Switch Apps” icons. No more arrow, house, or stack of cards. Now it’s a simple triangle, circle, and square. Looks like a refugee from a Playstation controller. Did I mention that I’m not happy about the rise of gamification?

The other noticeable change is the runtime change. In previous versions of Android, apps were compiled as necessary when you ran them. Now apps are compiled once, when you install them. That means, theoretically, faster launching and faster running at a cost of slower installation and updates. Frankly, though, I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference–except for app updates. An update means the app needs to be recompiled, so it’s noticeably slower than in KitKat. Maybe I’d see more difference if I played action games. Those should see a benefit from not having to devote CPU cycles to just-in-time compilation.

Hopefully, as I use Lollipop more, I’ll start to see some benefit from the other changes. In particular, if I get an increase in battery life, that’ll more than make up for slower updates and installations. The whole-device voice control may be useful, too. We’ll see how much use I give it. And, when Lollipop makes it to my Nexus 5, I’m sure having notifications show up on the lock screen will be a significant positive. Being able to read and reply to e-mails without having to unlock the phone and launch Gmail will save me considerably more time than I lose to the changed Settings navigation.


Finally, Google won a minor victory last week, when a court ruled that the selection of search results and the order in which they’re displayed is a matter of free speech. That’s in line with earlier decisions, so it wasn’t particularly a surprise to anyone.

Bottom line, according to the courts, Google is exercising an editorial function in selecting which results to show. Websites can’t force Google to display them prominently–or at all–and they can’t force Google to not display them either.

The ruling smacks a little of catering to the capitalist ideal (“Don’t like Google’s search results? Start your own wildly successful search engine.”) but balancing that against freedom from a European-style “right to be forgotten” rule, I’m inclined to consider this a net-positive.

Oh, Come On

Really?

The Internet–or at least that part of it that isn’t running around screaming because it just realized it’s April 15, and its taxes aren’t done–is agog with the latest “OMG, Amazon is working on a smartphone” rumor. Remember that these rumors have been around since around 4004 B.C. and that every time the rumors have peaked, Amazon has released something that’s not a phone with the most recent example being Fire TV.

The excitement this time is over some leaked photos and specs courtesy of BGR. I’ve yet to see a totally accurate leak, but just for grins, let’s assume they’ve got it totally correct. What does Amazon have in store for us?

Start with a screen slightly smaller than the current market leaders at 4.7 inches. Give it a 720p resolution instead of the 1080p found on those market leaders. Add Amazon’s usual “highly customized” version of Android that lacks significant chunks of the Google infrastructure in favor of Amazon’s own versions. This isn’t sounding too appealing yet, is it?

What if I tell you it’s got a brand new interface? Apparently so. Amazon’s not going to give you a stock Google/Android UI, and they’re not going to give you their standard “Fire” interface, either. No, they’ve got an exciting new 3D (or rather, 3D-like) UI. Picture the famous “parallax effect” of iOS 7, where tipping the phone from side to side makes the home screen icons shift relative to the wallpaper, giving a 3D effect. Got it? Now extend the metaphor: tipping the phone lets you see the sides of the icons! But wait, there’s more: the same effect is used in apps too! Angle the phone and you can see the sides of products in the store. So much simpler and more intuitive than sliding a finger across the screen, don’t you think?

It gets even better: Apple uses the phone’s accelerometer to figure out how you’re tipping it. Amazon is including four infrared cameras on the front of the phone to track the phone’s orientation relative to your face to allow greater accuracy and more degrees of freedom of movement.

I can tell you’re all wetting your drawers in anticipation. But wait, you haven’t heard the best part. According to BGR, this is Amazon’s premium offering and will come at a premium price, up there with the iPhone 5s, Galaxy S5, and HTC One. A “second, lower-cost” phone will come later.

Excuse me while I take a nap. I could see the potential value in the Fire TV, but I can’t see any real user value in a phone like this. Value for Amazon, sure: it’s another way to lock users into their infrastructure. But value for the user? Nope. Let’s hope this thing crashes and burns quickly.