Rethinking Ebooks

Domo is not a fan of ebooks
Domo is not a fan of ebooks

Until now I’ve been quite against ebooks. Back when I was in college I had an iPaq and I downloaded the Microsoft reader to it. I bought about 3 – 5 books for it and, at first, I thought it was great. It would allow you to annotate the book and highlight passages. And it was electronic so I could carry a bunch of books in the space of my PDA. But it was one of the first times I was bitten by digital restrictions management (DRM). I had to reset my PDA because it got into a locked state. After that, I couldn’t read my books until I reauthenticated the PDA. After all, everyone out there is out to destroy authors and steal digital books, so they need to make sure I’m the one who paid for it. This worked the first time around, but the second time I needed to authenticate, the server refused to authenticate the device and I could no longer read the books. So I was out around $20. Imagine buying a regular physical book and then having it no longer work because it wasn’t sure if you were the person who bought it. Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous.

I would be really pissed if I couldn't access this book.  Also, most ereaders are currently in b/w making them unsuitable for these types of books.
I would be really pissed if I couldn't access this book. Also, most ereaders are currently in b/w making them unsuitable for these types of books.

For the most part, back then we were limited to reading digital books on PDAs or the odd book reading device that only read its own obscure format. And when that company realized that no one wanted to read digital books, you would be stuck with a bunch of locked up files that would only work until your device died. (Maybe less time if it had to regularly phone in) And I disliked reading on the computer because I like to read in bed or while traveling.

A few years ago the Amazon Kindle came out. They licensed the eInk technology that Neal Stephenson had forseen in The Diamond Age and which made it just as easy to read a book on the Kindle as reading a physical book. Three things kept me from buying one. First was the fact that this device, too, used DRM to restrict access to the files. Second, the price was that of a more capable laptop. Third, I couldn’t share books with others. Many of the authors whose new books I buy without reading any reviews are authors I discovered by borrowing a book from a friend or a library. Sharing books is a huge part of our shared American culture. The ability to get a skeptical person to read a new author by allowing them to read your copy for free is a basic idea in the US. Yet publishers are too afraid to allow this to take place. More people need to be like Eric Flint, originator of the Baen Free Library (and an author himself). Here’s a bit of what he writes there:

1. Online piracy — while it is definitely illegal and immoral — is, as a practical problem, nothing more than (at most) a nuisance. We’re talking brats stealing chewing gum, here, not the Barbary Pirates.
2. Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc.
After all, Dave Weber’s On Basilisk Station has been available for free as a “loss leader” for Baen’s for-pay experiment “Webscriptions” for months now. And — hey, whaddaya know? — over that time it’s become Baen’s most popular backlist title in paper!
And so I volunteered my first novel, Mother of Demons, to prove the case. And the next day Mother of Demons went up online, offered to the public for free.
Sure enough, within a day, I received at least half a dozen messages (some posted in public forums, others by private email) from people who told me that, based on hearing about the episode and checking out Mother of Demons, they either had or intended to buy the book. In one or two cases, this was a “gesture of solidarity. “But in most instances, it was because people preferred to read something they liked in a print version and weren’t worried about the small cost — once they saw, through sampling it online, that it was a novel they enjoyed. (Mother of Demons is a $5.99 paperback, available in most bookstores. Yes, that a plug. )

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of people lending books to their friends — a phenomenon which absolutely dwarfs, by several orders of magnitude, online piracy of copyrighted books.
What’s happened here? Has the author “lost a sale?”
Well. . . yeah, in the short run — assuming, of course, that said person would have bought the book if he couldn’t borrow it. Sure. Instead of buying a copy of the author’s book, the Wretched Scoundrel Borrower (with the Lender as his Accomplice) has “cheated” the author. Read his work for free! Without paying for it!
The same thing happens when someone checks a book out of a public library — a “transaction” which, again, dwarfs by several orders of magnitude all forms of online piracy. The author only collects royalties once, when the library purchases a copy. Thereafter. . .
Robbed again! And again, and again!
Yet. . . yet. . .
I don’t know any author, other than a few who are — to speak bluntly — cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer’s audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.
Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author — and it’s ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it’s the one form of promotion which people usually trust.
That being so, an author can hardly complain — since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author’s table. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Think about it. How many people lend a book to a friend with the words: “You ought a read this! It’s really terrible!”
How many people who read a book they like which they obtained from a public library never mention it to anyone? As a rule, in my experience, people who frequently borrow books from libraries are bibliophiles. And bibliophiles, in my experience, usually can’t refrain from talking about books they like.
And, just as important — perhaps most important of all — free books are the way an audience is built in the first place. How many people who are low on cash and for that reason depend on libraries or personal loans later rise on the economic ladder and then buy books by the very authors they came to love when they were borrowing books?

So recently I heard about the Barnes and Noble Nook. Unlike the Kindle, you can share books (although it’s up to the publisher to allow this) and unlike the Kindle you can use the open format EPUB. Now we’re talking. And it’s getting to be within a price range that I might be willing to shell out. So am I about to just start buying ebooks? Well, not quite yet.

First of all, even with the Barnes and Noble Nook, the files are still locked with DRM. Publishers (like the music industry before them) continue to view their readers as adversaries rather than as their clients. They have not taken the lesson from the music industry that legal MP3 sales sky-rocketed once DRM-free tracks were available. Now I don’t know anyone who illicitly obtains music. Before everyone I knew did. And nearly everyone I know illicitly obtains movies because there aren’t DRM-free versions available and I figure the same will happen with books. A quick search online shows that hackers and crackers have already figured out how to break the DRM on Sony and Amazon books. This means that, just as the music industry was doing before, you’re punishing the honest guys while those who would have obtained a copy without paying will still do so. And I refuse to be left holding the bag again with a bunch of books I paid money for and can’t read. I LOVE to support my favorite authors. I WILL pay for books – electronic or otherwise. But I will not be made the fool again.

Second, there’s the matter of Amazon having a little too much power over the Kindle (and perhaps other book reader manufacturers wielding the same power when they also control the store you buy from). You may have seen in the news last year that they removed a book (1984, ironically) from people’s Kindles. That’s right, if the company doesn’t like it (or maybe the government in a country like Iran or China), your books can be remotely removed from your device. This is one of those times where you may be better off with a third party reader like this Viewsonic reader (linke to B&H) where their loyalties are more to you than to a publisher.

Like this....but digital!
Like this....but digital!

Third is the matter of convenience. Books can be read anywhere and anytime. Electronic devices have to be shut off at certain times on airplanes and cannot be brought into some work places. A book can be thrown around casually, but an electronic device cannot. A paperback can be pocket-sized and light – many readers are not.

To see if I can get into electronic books, I have downloaded some books from Cory Doctorow. He provides his books under a creative commons license which allows people to convert his book into every ebook format possible. I also have the Gutenberg project which contains all the classic books for free! I chose to get them on EPUB since it appears to be the book version of the Open Document Format (ODF) that I use with If there’s a compelling reason to use another file format, let me know and I’ll consider it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in that I do not own a book reader or a smart phone. I have my computer and my laptop. But the laptop could have been very useful on a recent train ride. And it can be useful at the airport when there’s power available (my battery doesn’t last long these days). I can even use it in bed – even though it is a bit cumbersome and hot. I installed dropbox on my laptop and main computer so I can keep my library in sync. It won’t be ideal, but it will give me somewhat of a feel for things. I’m using FBReader as it works on Linux and appears to support nearly every format. Who knows, if I can find myself enjoying this non-ideal way to read ebooks, it may inspire me to invest in an ebook reader. All I need now is the reader revolution demanding DRM-free books as they did with MP3s. Make your voices heard!

What kind of books will he end up reading?
What kind of books will he end up reading?

Stephenson Post CyberPunk

I read somewhere, maybe even Wikipedia, that the reason Bud dies so early in the The Diamond Age is that his character represents a stereotypical cyber-punk character and Stephenson is signaling that cyber-punk is over – this work of fiction is going beyond that. Stephenson then does a 90 degree turn genre-wise and does a historical fiction with Cryptonomicon. And he deepens that with The Baroque Cycle. Recently I read Anathem, a more typical science fiction novel in that it ostensibly involves aliens instead of a future Earth. Yet the steady stream that unites all of these books as Stephenson titles is the constant exploration of technology and its effects on society. It doesn’t matter whether that takes place in the future, during World War 2, or on another planet.

Sometime in the past five years I learned what science fiction was truly about. Science fiction isn’t really about cool technology, aliens, or even the future. Science fiction is a way to deal with today’s problems by projecting them into another time and place. This lets the author explore topics such as racism, sexism, the human-technology interface, genetic engineering, and dozens of other topics without people getting caught up their feelings about their world. Although this is overly simplistic, it is conceivable that someone who was deeply racist could see the error of his ways when he sees humanity suffer similarly under alien hands.

Erasmas (photo by Lisa Brewster)
Erasmas, the protagonist of Anathem (photo by Lisa Brewster - used under Creative Commons license)

In Anathem Stephenson takes this idea of science fiction as mirror of society and turns the setting up to 11. The setting is Earth as it may have been if monasteries were not cloisters for the religious, but for the scientifically-minded. The history of the planet even includes a Roman Empire clone – the Bazian Empire. Where our history has monasteries jump-starting The Enlightenment by having kept copies of books from antiquity, Arbre’s history has the monasteries first serve as a sort of university system and then as a sort of prison for the intelligent. In a way, it is the extension of our current fear of intelligence in the West. For the past few election cycles we’ve seen people lambasted for being too smart. People inherently distrust what they can’t understand – you see it all the time with computers and with complaints about how people used to be able to get under the hood of a car and figure out what’s going on. So, when the scientists in Anathem became too powerful, they were forced to live in seclusion in their maths, as the monasteries are called. And when they again cause a scare by creating weapons even more powerful than nuclear weapons, The Everything Killers, they are forbidden from working with computers. So they learn to cope with technology restrictions, writing their mathematical texts on leaves.

In order to both keep them from having too much influence on society and from collaborating with each other, a system is set up so that the gates of the maths are only opened once per year for those doing basic science, once every 10 for the next group, 100 for the next, and 1000 for the most intelligent. At this time they invite people from the surrounding cities to visit and enroll their children. It also serves to allow the city to see that the math isn’t up to no good. After all, while the government nominally provides protection for the maths, if it is convenient for them to do so, they allow the citizens to sack the maths. The story deals with Erasmas, a member of one of these maths. At first it simply describes his life in the math and his first time outside the gates since joining as a child. Then the real plot sets in.

The book has its own terminology for things, smart phones are jeejahs, for example. On the whole, it is not too bad. Clockwork Orange, in comparison, was absolutely dreadful to read because I hardly ever knew what the heck was going on because of all the impenetrable slang. This wasn’t a problem with Anathem for two reasons. First of all, Stephenson typically does a good job of describing what the items do so that it’s very quickly clear that a speely is a movie. Second, this terminology allows him to get around our preconceptions. If he said smart phone instead of jeejah, we’d probably think of the one we have and what it’s capable of and what it looks like. With his own terminology we learn that it’s analogous to a smart phone, but don’t get caught up in the details of whether it does this or that. It also serves a purpose in the book in that some of the older members of the math that haven’t been out in decades are also clueless about what the item does and often the word they remember is that same word we’d use on Earth. He also has another category of terminology in the book where he takes words as we use them and then uses a wink and a nod to give them a slightly different meaning in the book. Here’s a good example:

Bulshytt: (1) In Fluccish of the late Praxic Age and early Reconstitution, a derogatory term for false speech in general, esp. knowing and deliberate falsehood or obfuscation. (2) In Orth, a more technical and clinical term denoting speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subter¬fuges to create the impression that something has been said. (3) According to the Knights of Saunt Halikaarn, a radical order of the 2nd Millennium A.R., all speech and writings of the ancient Sphen¬ics; the Mystagogues of the Old Mathic Age; Praxic Age commercial and political institutions; and, since the Reconstitution, anyone they deemed to have been infected by Procian thinking.

and here’s another good one:

Saunt: (1) In New Orth, a term of veneration applied to great thinkers, almost always posthumously. Note: this word was accepted only in the Millennial Orth Convox of A.R. 3000. Prior to then it was considered a misspelling of Savant. In stone, where only upper-case letters are used, this is rendered SAVANT (or ST. if the stonecarver is running out of space). During the decline of standards in the decades that followed the Third Sack, a confusion between the letters U and V grew commonplace (the “lazy stonecarver problem”), and many began to mistake the word for SAUANT. This soon degenerated to saunt (now accepted) and even sant (still deprecated). In written form, St. may be used as an abbreviation for any of these. Within some traditional orders it is still pronounced “Savant” and obviously the same is probably true among Millenarians.

This ranges from cute to clever to obnoxious. I found the use of Saunt to be somewhere between cute and clever especially how it’s abbreviated to St, as in Saint – which draws in the comparison of a math to a monastery. The bullshytt one was hilarious, especially the way it was used in the book.  He also has fun with the convention that Asian monks invented Kung Fu by having the equivalent development take place with the study of Vale Lore (valore) which is the stand-in for Kung Fu in this world.

Monks involved in Shovel-fu (photo by ToastyKen)
Monks involved in Shovel-fu (photo by ToastyKen used under Creative Commons license)

Like most of his books, Anathem contains long passages of technical detail. In this book, a lot of it consists of Dialogs, philosopher-like exchanges between members of the maths, and, as such, are entertaining and often further the story. However, as in most of his books, this information is awesome in its detail and content, but can sometimes seem to stop the story. Most of the time I really, really enjoyed it. A few times, especially as the story neared the climax, I found myself getting a little impatient as I wanted the story to continue so I could find out what exactly was going on.

Unlike most of his books, Anathem has a proper conclusion. The previous books I read all seemed to end immediately after the climax. It’s as though Stephenson said, “well, the tying up of the loose ends is often very boring and we already know that that good guys won (or lost) so, why bother?” But it often left me unsatisfied because I wanted to know, now that things had returned to normal (or a new equilibrium), what the characters were going to do. So, whether or not this sticks in future books, I feel like Stephenson has grown enough as a writer to get through writing those post-climax parts of the book and finish up the story he set out to tell.

There’s really so much more to talk about, but I like this book so much, I’d prefer not to have any spoilers. Everything about how he lays out the world and history of Arbre and how it is similar to and diverges from ours is delightful to read. And I really don’t want to spoil the main conflict or the first quarter or so of the book is ruined if you’re not in the dark as much as the main characters.

If Anathem isn’t Neal Stephenson’s Magnum Opus, I can’t wait to see how he tops this book.

Neal Stephenson (photo by John of Austin)
Neal Stephenson (photo by John of Austin used under a Creative Commons license)

Another Crack at the Same Idea

The Mad Hatter Does Not Want to Be Late to the Unbirthday Party

Last weekend Danielle and I went to Borders so Danielle could check out the Buffy graphic novels and I could pick up Watchmen. While in the graphic novel section I started looking around to see what new books were out in this space and I came across Beyond Wonderland and Return to Wonderland, two comics in Zenoscope‘s Grimm Fairy Tales line. From the busty cover on Beyond Wonderland, I thought it might be like Clamp’s Miyuki-chan in Wonderland.

Beyond Wonderland Cover
Beyond Wonderland Cover - NOT an accurate indication of what's within (as you'll soon see)

But reading the back cover, I was intrigued. This story sounded a lot more like American McGee’s Alice. I was very curious to see where the writers would go with the Alice story. Tim Burton had already made his movie considerably darker than the Disney version we were all calibrated against. It was certainly a neat idea – what if an older Alice returned to Wonderland. But it was still kept from being too insane for kids, albeit older kids this time around. What if Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland had been rated R? You might have ended up with something like Grimm Fairy Tales’ Alice stories. So I delved into the books. And let me just say that from here on out THERE BE SPOILERS!

Although they have released some new books that take place chronologically before it, the first book you’re meant to read is Return to Wonderland. The book lets you know it’s on a whole different level from the start – the first scene has the original Alice slit her wrists. You then find out she is married with two kids. And things are a bit messed up with her family as you start finding out right away. Her daughter is having sex with her boyfriend and going out to smoke pot. Her son is turned on by graphic violence. Her husband is visiting an abusive prostitute. And she is on the couch catatonic. In fact, throughout most of this book she just sits there with her creepy, creepy rabbit.

Eventually the daughter, Calie, ends up in Wonderland. Like Tim Burton’s movie, it follows the general outline of the Alice in Wonderland that you know, but creepier. She drinks the “drink me” cup and becomes too small, eats the “eat me” cake and becomes too big. She goes through the door and ends up in Wonderland. She meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (kinda – but I don’t want to ruin too much for you). She meets the caterpillar and even ends up in the woods with signs everywhere. The authors use this for a chance at a great visual gag.

Konami Code in Return to Wonderland
Konami Code in Return to Wonderland

But, this truly is an insane and evil version of Wonderland. Lest you doubt, THIS is the Cheshire cat:

Cheshire Cat in Return to Wonderland
Cheshire Cat in Return to Wonderland

This series is not just Alice in Wonderland rated R, this is Alice in Wonderland as horror movie. Everywhere Calie turns she finds people out to kill or rape her. No one is trustworthy and it takes her a little bit to catch onto that. Eventually you learn that when he mother went into Wonderland part of her psyche stayed there and that’s why she’s been so weird in the real world. Now Wonderland wants to do the same to Calie. When she finally escapes from Wonderland, her mother commits suicide in the real world. Then Calie meets her grandfather who tells her the true nature of Wonderland and why it’s so hellish – it is an alternate dimension that wants to take over ours. We must sacrifice a child every generation to keep Wonderland from coming into the real world. Things get a little more complicated in the second book and I think I need to reread this one, especially this part. When Calie returns home, her brother has killed her father because he believes the father’s philandering has caused the mother’s suicide. In a nod to Through the Looking Glass, Calie pushes her brother through a mirror into Wonderland. She hopes that this will both keep him from jail for killing his father and allow him to be the child sacrifice for their generation. She escapes to NYC with her boyfriend.

The second book, Beyond Wonderland is nothing like what you’d expect from the book cover I have up there. It has almost nothing to do with Alice and Calie doesn’t even go to Wonderland. Yes, it’s a great fan service cover, but quite deceptive. At any rate, in this book we find out the fate of her brother. Namely, he becomes the new Mad Hatter and he resents his sister for sending him to this madhouse. As Wonderland begins to merge with the real world (because something about the brother as the sacrifice doesn’t take), the book becomes even more like a horror movie. People all around Calie start to die and then eventually she is pursued. Another guy who claims that HE is her grandfather and the previous guy is her great-grandfather (see, this is why I need to reread these books), tells her that the first story is a lie and that Wonderland has actually been feeding on these sacrifices. It ends on a huge cliffhanger that I’m not about to spoil, but let’s just say that I can’t wait for the third book to come out so I can see what happens!

It has become cliche to talk about how Watchmen changed the comic book landscape. It was one of the first graphic novels and its dark view of the comic book world lead to reboots of everything from Batman to Spider-Man in a darker guise. It was both a sign of the times (the 80s) and a sign that an entire generation had grown up on comic books and wanted to keep reading them, but not if they were going to be all cheesy and kiddie. One innovative thing Watchmen did was to tell the backstory, not as a flashback, but as a series of newspaper clippings, book excerpts, and in-world advertisements. This legacy continues in newer titles. For example, in Beyond Wonderland part of the story is told through Alice’s diary:

Alice's Diary Entry
Alice's Diary Entry

and Calie’s blog. (as well as her brother’s blog)

Calie's blog
Calie's blog

The great thing about using Calie’s blog is that you also get a feel for her personality via the graphic design of her blog.

So, what do I think of this series? Well, the good thing is that I want to see how it ends. So the story is compelling enough and they left it on enough of a cliff hanger that I want to get the last book. That said, neither this series nor the Tim Burton movie have quite given me what I was looking for. Tim Burton’s movie is mostly about how Alice needs to grow up and become assertive. She grows as a woman and it works. In a sense. that movie could have taken place in any fictional universe, Burton just happened to choose Alice in Wonderland. With Grimm Fairy Tales, they had the ability to go adult and, for example, have the Red Queen be truly murderous or perhaps have the Jaberwocky a truly gruesome creature. I’m having a bit of trouble getting across exactly what they could have done differently, but I’m left feeling as though I’ve asked someone to scratch an itch on my back and they’ve scratched every part of my back but the part that itches.

I guess it also helps to confess that I do not like horror movies. The violence tends to feel too gratuitous. Perhaps what I wanted was a book that explored how an adult would see Wonderland. It needn’t be overly sexual (although a little would be ok) nor overly violent (again, a little is fine). But I felt that even though Tim Burton’s character was old enough to get married, she still was quite a bit childlike (although I do guess that’s part of the point of the movie). It’s hard to give a definitive recommendation on this graphic novel series without haven’t read the last one. It’s possible that the ending will leave me unsatisfied. But I do think they have done a really good job in taking the Alice mythology into a new direction. Wonderland not as a dreamland, but as a demonic dimension is a pretty neat basis for a horror series. If you take a look at the Zenoscope website you can see that their artists specialize in fan service covers that, while likely attracting some readers, tends to mislead about the tone of the story inside. I do have to worn you about the following with my recommendation – treat this as if it were a rated R movie. It has strong profanity, it has nudity (although it is not porn – they go to great lengths to have objects covering all parts what would be covered by a revealing bathing suit), drug use (for two pages), and I’m sure some other stuff that’s pretty bad. So don’t read it if you’re opposed to seeing rated R movies for religious or other reasons. And DON’T let your kids read this unless you are sure they are mature enough to handle the content and the images. It’s vivid enough that I’m surprised I didn’t have nightmares last night (and I almost never have nightmares).

Late for an Important Date

New Revenue Models

Book Domo

While listening to The Command Line Podcast a few weeks ago, they started talking about how digital distribution allows for innovations in publishing.  I don’t remember what they mentioned exactly, but the prior link should take you to the show notes.  The talk started a series of synapses firing in my grey matter culminating in the following idea – what about a subscription model for authors.  Right now it sucks to be an author in that your pay is very irregular.  I know that my paycheck will be the same week to week.  But authors get an advance for a book and then some royalties depending upon how well a book sells.  So they can’t really plan their finances easily because they don’t know ahead of time how many books they will sell.  But, with digital distribution, it might be easier to sell the author’s readers on a subscription model.

Let’s taken an author like Terry Pratchet who has a body of work encompassing a universe and series of characters.  After building up a fan base from his first few books, perhaps he could end up telling people they could subscribe to get the future books in his series.  Now, with the current way books are written, this wouldn’t work because it takes years between books.  But what if the books were instead serialized.  I know in the old days (the 1800s, I think) a lot of books would first appear in newspapers a chapter at a time.  Then, when the book was complete, a reader could buy the entire story in book form.  So if Terry (or Tom Clancy, Dan Brown [ugh!], etc) could deliver a chapter every month to continue your story (like a comic book storyline) would you pay to subscribe?  This works out for the author because he/she now has a steady revenue stream.  It works for the reader because you don’t have to wait years for the next book to come out.

What are the pitfalls to this scheme?  First off, enough people need to have an ebook reader.  Second, this has to work within the framework of writing books.  I’ve never written a fiction book, so I don’t know exactly how the process works.  Perhaps the practice of refining earlier chapters of a book as you work on later chapters would preclude certain (or all?) authors from participating in such a scheme.

Another potential money-maker with digital distribution of books would be add-on content.  Perhaps for a premium, a reader could get commentary (audio or text) on the book.  This is not without its negatives.  The author would be busy producing add-on content instead of the next book.

Neither of these situations are perfect, but I think we need to continue to try and innovate as new technologies allow for abilities that didn’t previously exist.  After all, would as many people have bought DVDs in the early days if you couldn’t skip chapters?  That was the killer app for me when it was SO HARD to find the right spot in a movie if someone rewound it or if you just wanted to watch your favorite part over and over.  And now we have technologies like Hulu bypassing the concept of channels on TV.  Perhaps something just as disruptive could be on the horizon for books.  Get on it, innovators!

Review: The Discworld Series

Last week I finished the Discworld Series.  I started with a few books early in 2008.  From the first book, The Color of Magic, I fell in love with the series.  Although I have found British television and movies to be hit or miss, I have loved all of the geek genre British books.  So I read the first four or five books here and there.  Then in November Borders had a “buy two get the third one free” and my wife bought me the remaining 20-something books for my birthday and Christmas.  She also let me start reading in November.  I started reading them during my lunch breaks at work, on business trips and – when things were getting really interesting – at home.

I think the Discworld Series is the greatest collection of books based on a single “world”.  Of course, you have to enjoy the genre I call “sarcastic sci-fi/fantasy”.  Other examples include The Hitchhikers’ Guide “trilogy” and Neil Stephenson’s earlier cypherpunk novels.  Part of what makes Terry Pratchett such an amazing writer is his ability to write amazing parody.  It ranges from subtle (The Builder of the Spacecraft in The Light Fantastic -> Taj Majal) to the obvious (Gollem-like creature in [I think] Witches Abroad).  To speak more about the parody would rob you of the pleasure of recognizing the parody.  (At least that’s how I usually feel about them)

The Discworld books are divided into stories about certain characters.  The Color Of Magic introduces The Wizards and Equal Rites introduces The Witches.  The wikipedia entry suggests you could read in publication order or read in the order of character stories.  I recommend against any reading other than publication order.  Even though Pratchett starts off with each book (other than the first two) being relatively self-contained, you will find yourself missing out on references and jokes if you skip around.  This is especially true on crossover stories.  For example, The Wizards appear in Carpe Jugulum even though it’s primarily a Witches story.  And there would be certain assumptions you would be missing.  This is especially true with the Moist von Lipwig and City Watch stories.  And, of course, The Wizards make cameos in City Watch stories.

A very interesting thing happened to me as I was reading through the series.  I started off really, really enjoying The Wizards.  I wasn’t too fond of The Witches and I definitely didn’t have that much fun with The City watch in their first book – “Guards! Guards!”.  But as time went on, I started to get a little tired of The Wizards.  I think Terry Pratchett did as well because they appear in a smaller and smaller percentage of the books.  I started to really like The Witches and by the end I REALLY liked The City Watch.  The appearance and description of Death in the first two books are what cemented my love for Discworld.  When I read his first lines, I was hooked.  As far as his own books, I’ve found myself really liking them at first and then dropping off with the later ones.  I think I like Death most as a cameo character.  His own books, especially later on, tend to get a bit dragged on.

So that’s the good stuff.  What’s the bad stuff?  I’ll start out with something that is only the tiniest bit negative.  The plots of many (maybe most?) of the Discworld books revolve around macguffins.  It’s only a tiny bit negative because, really most fantasy or sci-fi novels are macguffin-heavy.  The point of the Discworld books is to explore the Discworld and its many hilarious inhabitants.  I’m not saying that the plot suffers.  But sometimes I found the resolution to the conflict pretty darned anti-climactic.  Also, at first Pratchett seems to suffer from Sitcom-itis.  Many of the early books wrap up their plots so that in the end everything is returned to the status quo.  He seems to be afraid of changing too much of of the Discworld.  That’s probably a good thing early on since he didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.  But it does take away some of the punch of the episodes.  The reason why I never got engaged with most sitcoms is that I knew nothing would change after 30 minutes – so what was the point of all the mayhem?  It’s not until “Guards! Guards!” that the Discworld begins to have a history to refer back to.

A few other niggles I have are with some continuity problems.  WARNING THIS PARAGRAPH WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!  And Pratchett does such a GOOD job overall with maintaining an extremely rich continuity and I think that’s why it hurts so much when it isn’t there.  Examples include the fact that it was SUCH A BIG DEAL for Esk to become the first female wizard.  Yet she has never appeared again.  It also seemed a bit cheap that after Gaspode lost his Movie-Magic reason to speak, he gained it from the Unseen University.  In one book, it is explained how Vetinari will never allow a printing press in Ankh-Morpork, but just a couple of books later he is endorsing it.  One other thing I think killed a lot of the fun of The Wizards is that they are no longer trying to kill each other.  Munstrum Ridcully comes in and suddenly everything’s normal.  I know Pratchett needed to do that for character development reasons, but it really stinks.  END OF SPOILERS

I would love to see Pratchett explore the lands mentioned in Pyramids a bit more.

Right now I’m reading ancillary books related to the Discworld, but not in its continuity.  This includes The Science of Discworld (an awesome book!).  I think the reader is in a very unique opportunity.  Right now there are 30 or so Discworld books to read.  The early ones are read rather quickly, but the later ones get lengthier.  It might easily also take you a few months to read them through, but you are able to read them back-to-back as I did.  This means that, unlike people who read them as they came out, you can easily remember the continuity and will therefore enjoy a lot more of the jokes.  (The same thing happened to me with Clerks -> Jay/Silent Bob.  I was able to get jokes seeing them back to back that others in my group had never seen)  It’ll cost a few hundred (the books are $8/ea in the US), but it’ll be money well-spent as far as books go.  If, like me, you find the first book amazing – you’ll like the entire series.  If you find the first book ok, give the next three a shot.  And if you don’t like the book, you probably won’t like the series much.  His writing gets better, but the tone stays more or less the same.

Trudging through Lord of the Rings Part 4

I am now done with the entire story of the hobbits.  Overall, I have enjoyed the books more than the movie.  Here’s what I have to say about The Return of the King:

I found the characters in the book seem a lot more hopeless than in the movie.  I mean, the movie does a good job of showing the despair of the city Minis Tirith, but the book really shows it much better.  I found myself at times forgetting that I already knew the ending and that most of the characters would be fine.  Speaking of already knowing the story, I kept waiting for the part where Gollum tricks Frodo into thinking that The Fat Hobbit has eaten the bread.  It’s not in the books – they added that for the movie.

In “The Scouring of the Shire”, which was left out of the movie, I felt it was a huge allegory about the failures of communism as implemented by Russia and other countries.  (As opposed to communism the theory which should be an awesome world)  Lotho and Sharkey have instituted a policy where they confiscate the goods from the Hobbits and claim this is so that they can be shared amongst all.  Yet the only people who end up getting the goods are Lotho, Sharkey, and their cronies.  Similarly, during the “Golden Age” of communism, the state would collect everything for redistribution, but only the Party Members got access to the high quality goods.

I wonder if it was a very barely concealed hint that the Elves and their companions went to Heaven as they went to a place called Haven and then they were able to live forever.

Other than Tom Bombadil, the only thing that I didn’t like over the course of the series was the way the author dealt with the story temporally.  Instead of going from character to character in each paragraph or chapter, as most authors do, he would go an entire ridiculously large amount of chapters with one set of characters and then go back and start again with other characters.  Although he provided some hints, this made it really hard for me to see when things were happening.  For example, when Frodo was being bitten by Shelob, what was happening with the battle in Gondor and so forth.  Perhaps that’s just the way books were written back then.

Finally, I found it a bit confusing that everyone had a ton of names.  For example Strider, Elfstone, Aragon, and something of the Dunedain are all the same person.  Gandolf is often called Mithrandyl (or something like that) and it makes it a bit harder to keep track of what’s going on.

In the end, I’m glad I read it and spent the money on it.

Trudging through the Lord of the Rings Part 3

I finished up The Two Towers a week or so ago and I have to say that “Trudging” no longer describes my experience (for the most part). While I preferred the first movie to the first book, I mostly feel exactly the opposite about the second book/movie. The only annoying thing was that we didn’t get to Frodo and Samwise until page 208 of a 352 page book. I can’t remember exactly, but I think the movie goes back and forth a lot more instead of doing like the book and telling each person’s day and then backing up to tell the next person’s day (if the party has been separated).

I also really liked the descriptions during the war.  I feel like I got a lot more about the history behind certain events and definitely got more insight into what the characters were thinking.

Finally, Gollum comes off as way more treacherous and smart in the book.  In the movie he seems to be tricky, yes, but not quite as smart.

So overall, I’m now very glad I’ve chosen to read the books and I’m about 1/4 of the way through The Return of the King.

Trudging Through Lord of the Rings Part 2

A few days ago I finished The Fellowship of the Rings.  Things picked up in the second half of the book and they accelerated in the last quarter.  I’m enjoying The Lord of the Rings a lot more now that Tolkien has gotten Tom Bombadil out of his system.  In the Wikipedia article, even Tolkien seems to understand how much Tom annoys the crap out of people.

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person — to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment.’ I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in The Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.”

“And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

Tolkien did go on to analyse the character’s role further:

“I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless…

“It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war… the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.”[3]

Tolkien even seems to justify Tom Bombadil’s presence:

At any rate, what I like about the book over the movies in the last half to fourth of the book is that a few of the plot elements get explained a little more clearly.  Sauron’s origins are explained a lot more clearly.  Gandalf and others talk about how he came to power and why he’s just an “eye” now.  Gollum is a lot more treacherous in the books.  The characters know who he is and he menaces them a few times.  I think this elevates his dangerous aura and prepares the reader for the fact that Smeagol has been following our protagonists.  Finally, the elven queen Galadrial is given a much more cohesive treatment in the book.  In the movie, from what I can remember, she just talks to Frodo in a dream.  In the book, all of the characters leave the forest changed in some way because of her.  Also, she gives everyone a special gift.

So, perhaps LoTR can be enjoyable….if you can get past Tom Bombadil…

Trudging Through Lord of the Rings

I’ve read time and again that the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (which is actually not a trilogy, but one massive book published in 3 parts) has all kinds of allegorical content and contains a lot of stuff Peter Jackson had to leave out of the movies.  Well, they’re certainly right about Mr Jackson leaving material out of the movie.  I’m on page 160 (reading during my lunch breaks) and I’d have to say that roughly 90% of what I’ve read does not appear in any form in the movie.  I’m about a little less than halfway through the first book (in the size they’ve printed) and the main characters JUST got to The Prancing Pony.  I think this happens in the first 10 or so minutes in the movie.  And what a great idea to cut all that chaff was!

I have absolutely no idea how the Lord of the Rings became such a revered book amongst the fantasy crowd.  Tolkien appears not to have had an editor, or perhaps his editor was a pushover.  If I were his editor I would certainly have made him remove the stupid chapter and a half about Tom Bombadil.  This chapter does not further the story in any way and just leaves you with the same feeling as when you thought you’d be getting lucky to realize that your girl was only wearing the sexy panties because everything else is in the laundry basket.  I kept reading thinking that Tom Bombadil would drop some bombs about some key part of the story or that the Black Riders would show up and tear his place apart and  kill his wife.  Oh, and the insufferable singing!  It didn’t even make any sense!  What’s with everyone speaking in the third person?  Eric doesn’t like that.

And the hobbits are always breaking into song.  One could be forgiven for thinking that Peter Jackson would have make Lord of the Rings the Musical.  They sing songs about everything from travel, to hotels, to taking baths.  And I’ve found out more about hobbit genealogy than I ever cared for.

Interestingly, the relationship between Frodo and Sam doesn’t seem to have the same sexual overtones that it does in the movie.  And, I’m pretty sure Peter Jackson didn’t do that on purpose.  It just came out so ridiculous that TBS had everyone almost literally rotfltao when they had a commercial for their broadcast of LoTR featuring clips of Frodo and Sam and the song “Secret Lovers”.

At any rate, this is mostly a rant about how slow-going this book is.  Had it not had so many decades of reputation to rest upon, I would have probably returned the book to Borders and not even attempted to finish.  Then again, I found the movies really boring, so perhaps the Lord of the Rings just isn’t for me.  Ironically, I’m loving Terry Prachet’s Discworld series which is, partly, a parody of the Tolkien universe.

Spiderman Predicts the future

It’s interesting how Science Fiction often predicts future technologies and trends. For example, this morning on CNN they were talking about a research group that is trying to switch on the gene in humans that would cause limbs to regrow. Apparently they haven’t seen what happens when you do that (I say tongue-in-cheek). Peter Parker’s favorite professor was trying to regrow his arm and his technique, which I believe involved splicing reptilian DNA, turned him into one of Spiderman’s fiercest foes, The Lizard.

While the comic book is an extreme possibility of this research created in the 1960s and for the purpose of drama, I think that it shows (along with the basic theme of the series) that blind belief in the powers of science can have dire consequences. This appears to have been a central theme of other Marvel stories as well, such as The Fantastic Four. I think it’s time for a little bit of 1950s-60s suspicion about the claims of science. After Vioxx and the other recent revelations that drug companies are shoving drugs through the FDA, we need to take a look and see whether we can find a balance. We don’t want to reject all new technology, but we need to stop what some think is the inevitable march of progress. More testing needs to be done on our meds and therapies before releasing them to the public.

Children’s Book to teach them about DRM

Paradigms are a battle of the mind that take place when we prepare our children with certain expectations about the world. Don’t let them grow up thinking there’s something right about Digital Restrictions Management! Have them read The Pig and the Box and let them learn about why software and culture need to be libre. (That’s free as in speech!)

Why is DRM so bad? This is why!

My first published book of photography!

Today I received my copy of the photography book I’ve published, Eric Mesa’s Top 40 flickr Images. It’s a great feeling to finally have the book published after having worked on it since April. There were a few false starts with the publishing process as I figured out how to make sure my final PDF could be printed on‘s printers. But the journey is finally over and I was able to make the book available to the public today.

One of the interesting things about basing a book on my top rated photos on flickr is that they not only changed while I was writing the book, but even now they are radically different in some places while remaining the same in other places. It’s a snapshot, no pun intended, of where my work was at one particular point in time – April of 2006.

So why make a book of images freely available on the net? Well, there are two reasons. The first one is that Internet access is not yet ubiquitous and there’s a certain something about books that people still love. I know that I am a very technological guy, but I just don’t enjoy reading a book off my computer screen. I prefer good old paper and used to even print my college readings when they were given as PDFs. The second reason for the book, is that when I put my pictures on flickr, I usually don’t put any comments along with the picture because I want others to enjoy the picture through their own eyes, not the filter I have set up. I’m not a total purist, as I do give the pictures titles and thus a frame of reference. But beyond that, I don’t want to talk about what went on behind the picture or even the technical aspects if it happens to be a complicated one. In this book, I take each of the pictures and talk about how I got the inspiration for taking them, some of the technical difficulties, and sometimes the plain dumb luck involved.

I know it sounds a bit cliche, but I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Hitch Hiker’s Guide Quotes

The Hitch Hiker’s Guice to the Galaxy had such wonderful and amazing quotes in it that I was horribly dissapointed when the movie didn’t share more of these quotes. Here are two of my favorites, with more to follow.

The intro to the first book, which set the tone and got me very happy about the book to follow:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughtly 92 million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the time the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean and more of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and tha tno one shoul dever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small face in rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going worng all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastraphe occurre, and the idea was lost forever.

This is not her story.

But it is the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.

And from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide, which is a book in the book for which it it named.

‘The Babel fish’, said The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, ‘is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then extretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious though frequencies with the nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

‘Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existance of God.

‘The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without fait I am nothing.”

‘”But,” says Man, “the Bable fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore by your your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

‘”Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

‘”Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.’


1) In this post, wget had created a directory structure, foiling my plans to do the md5sum check automatically. The correct way to do what I wanted to do was use the option -nd for no directories. If I had typed

wget -nd address

it would have just saved to my current directory and the code would have worked perfectly. It would have also worked the roundabout way that I showed.

2) If you like Neal Stephenson’s style of writing then you MUST read Catch-22! Catch-22 is the literary father of his style of writing so be sure to check it out! I just finished the book a couple of days ago and I loved it! It was a little confusing at first, but then I couldn’t put it down.

So long and thanks for all the fish

Friday I went to go see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as you may recall. I was quite excited about seeing it as I had read one of the five books and watched the old BBC adaptation. The movie certainly started off very well with an entertaining opening sequence, but I was left quite dissapointed. Why? At first I couldn’t really articulate what it was about the movie that was lacking. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with it, but then more and more things came to mind and I realized why I didn’t like it.

First of all, they got rid of a lot of entries from the Hitchhiker’s Guide. I consider the book to be, in a sense, the book’s main character. To leave out so many entries was akin to leaving out Arthur Dent, in my opinion. Additionally, to me it was the entries from the Guide that really made the book so fun for me. The story was pretty neat, but the hilarious entries were what I loved. Some of the entries I truly missed were (in summary):

-the entry about how the Babel fish disproves the existence of God
-the entry about the girl who had just figured out the key to happiness before the Earth was distroyed
-the entry about teenagers in the universe who would mess with Earth yokels as a prank
-the entry explaining the reasons for buying planets and why the earth-building planet had to be blown up
-the entry about Arthur screaming something which started an intergallactic war
and a few others.

While they would have added some length to the movie, it would have totalled to maybe an extra 15 minutes, if that! I was really dissapointed by that.

Also, perhaps it was just that we watched the movie in a crappy movie theatre, but I found it hard to sometimes hear what the characters were saying. This took away from the film since I had to be straining to hear what they were saying a majority of the time.

If I had to sum it up I would say that the book was overly complex – the genius of Douglas Adams and his cheeky humor. However, the movie was considerably less complex. The fans would have been done a better service had the movie done a much better job of potraying this complexity. Doubtless some people will be so fanatically dedicated to the series that they will find no fault with the movie. I, however, would probably give it a B- or worse. One thing is for sure, if they bring out the sequels, I will have to go by myself or with my brothers for my fiancee found the movie dreadful.