Kindle links: Kindle Unlimited, reading experience

The new Kindle Unlimited campaign is smoking out new opinions on Amazon's strategy [1]. I liked this comparison of the Kindle to the iPod's early days, and the evolution from buying single songs to streaming music services (Songza is my favorite). The lack of privacy is of concern to the writer, though buying a Kindle or even having an Amazon account means you have opted for convenience over privacy. The local public library (funded by your tax dollars) may offer a little more in the way of privacy and choice (thanks to librarians, not the government) -- some observers are not all that excited by the books on offer via the Kindle lending library or Kindle Unlimited. Of course, paying with cash at your local new or used bookstore may circumvent privacy and choice concerns.

Austin Kleon (via his marvelous weekly mailing) pointed me to this critique of the Kindle by a new reader. Pierce makes some sharp observations about the Kindle, especially how the designers chose to glorify the device over the book you're reading. He also has reservations about the shared-passages feature of Kindle e-books; it's as if someone is reading over your shoulder and turns what has traditionally been a private experience into an unasked-for shared one.

And I also have the sense he describes of the Kindle separating me from the traditional reading experience. Many books on my shelves double as physical objects I formed a relationship with -- they're signed by the authors, I read this one during that long week in Anaheim, I read this one when I was unemployed and it led me to read these other books, etc.  The reading experience is different on a Kindle; my memories of a book will now be associated to a device rather than a book. Instead of forming a relationship to the book I'm devising a relationship to the device.

For example, if I'm going on a trip and I only have room to carry two books in my bag, then I'm making a commitment to give these books a chance. There are physical consequences of weight and comfort to consider, but I'm also promising myself that I will put in the time to read them. With the Kindle, though, I have maybe 50 or so books and collections I've downloaded. Which do I read first, which do I commit to? Does it really matter, since I can choose to flip in a moment from this essay collection to that novel to that e-book written by a friend? No one book will have my full committed attention unless I delete all the others from the device, because it's the device I've committed to, rather than the e-book.

Or such is my current improvised line of thinking on this sunny and beautiful Sunday afternoon, where I am skimming web pages and writing blog posts rather than sitting down to read a book.

[1] I do not plan to sign up for the service at this time. I already have more books than I can eat on my Kindle. And I have more movies in my Netflix queue than I could see if I had a week off. ^

Miss Marple

Before we left on our England trip, I loaded up the Kindle with a few hundredweight of e-books thinking, "Oho, eight hours on the flight over, eight hours on the flight back, three weeks of travel -- I'll certainly rip through more than a dozen books!" When I write up my lessons learned from the trip, we'll talk more about the grand foolishness of that master plan (and the foolishness of master plans in general).

Joan Hickson

But I did in fact read a couple of e-books, one of which gave me mild but very real pleasure -- namely, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories, which Amazon helpfully priced at about $2 or $3 just before the trip. I remembered the old BBC series fondly and thought I'd give the old girl a whirl.

They were quite wonderful to read late at night, after Liz had gone to bed but well before I felt sleepy. And reading the stories where we stayed, at bed-and-breakfasts in Bowness-on-Windemere and Chipping Campden -- villages both -- felt just right for these cozy, delicately spun cameos.

I am not up to date or even well read in the classic country-house English mystery genre. Christie's books, and the Marple stories and novels in particular, are referred to, I believe, as "cozies" -- an established set of characters who form the suspects and allies, a rather hermetic and contrived environment, and, my golly, lots of exposition and talking heads. No chasing bad guys through the bog or fisticuffs on a pitched roof. No, the primary action in a Miss Marple short story is of the women knitting or the men drinking and smoking cigars.

Nowadays, I expect an author would create a backstory for  Miss Jane Marple that would explain all: was she always solving mysteries? Had she ever been in love? What did she do during the wars? Does she navigate the thorny politics of planning church fêtes as easily as she does a murder investigation?

Part of a detective story's fun is that the detective is himself the central mystery: what is the alchemical mix that makes them who we see in the story? I found myself reading the Marple stories for clues to her character, since I found her easily the most fascinating and unsolved mystery in the entire book.

As I read the stories, I kept hearing Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple in the 1980s-era BBC series that dramatized the novels. I watched them all on Netflix over the last month. As with the stories, the most interesting bits are where Miss Marple talks about the past and her memories, yet without giving away any personal details. There are tender moments in some of the episodes where she commiserates with other old ladies; the gravity and weight of their age, and their invisibility in this strange modern world, are brought to gnawing life by the elderly character actresses.

The antiqueness of the Marple plots and the settings was in cases matched by the slow pace and staid staging of the episodes. The series was praised in its time for hewing closely to the novels and not substantially changing them (a claim recent series based on the Marple mysteries cannot make, so I hear), and I believe the novels mostly consist of people being questioned.  Still, I couldn't quite believe how amateurishly filmed and staged was "A Murder is Announced," even though it has some of my favorite Marple dialogues and observations.

The acting is also variable, though one can catch a few young actors on their way up, such as Tom Wilkinson, who even in his younger days looked like an old member of the Establishment. Throughout though, is Hickson's busybodyish, soft-spoken, observant, and shrewd Miss Marple. There is a stillness to Hickson's Marple that arrests me; she is an old lady sitting in a chair by the fire, listening to the radio, her mind wandering who knows where, who will suddenly rouse herself to ask a pointed question that no one had thought to ask before. It's a dear and charming performance.

I thought the strongest stories of the series were "A Pocketful of Rye," "Sleeping Murder," and "Nemesis." And a wonderful little bonus for me: in "Nemesis," Chipping Campden serves as the setting for the village Miss Marple visits to investigate a case, with several scenes set in and around St. James Church, where we had been only a few weeks before.

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Like many other Americans, I became aware of Hughes through his "Shock of the New" documentary and considered myself lucky to snag a copy of the hardback from a remainder table at the (long-gone and lamented) Intimate Book Shop in 1983. Most people can name critics of movies, music, and books because we hear those products talked about on NPR or Entertainment Weekly. Art critics -- not so much. The only one I could name with any confidence would have been Hughes. I did not read much of his stuff, but like Gore Vidal or Pauline Kael, I had only to read a few lines and I could hear the cadence of his prose, and the stunning way he could put together a sentence. I always liked his boisterous charisma and certainty.

The following paragraph is from his memoir, "Things I Didn't Know." Thanks to The Daily Beast for bringing it to my attention.

“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.”

—Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know

 

Examining the unlived life

Alex has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his description of his early college self. And i would say it's only been fairly recently that I've decided to bias myself towards action -- even fidgety action -- over excessive rumination. (Just look up what "brown study" means.)

I think had Alex pushed farther, he would have probably detected fear prompting the defensive thinking posture he (we) adopted. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being loved. There are damn few Socrates in the world whose motivations are not based on fear; for the rest of us, I think we adopt that intellectual camouflage and hope for the best.

And I loved this description of one of the risks we run by overindulging our penchant for thinking over a livelier balance between thought and action:

Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It’s not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.

Anyway, his post reminded me for some reason of this wonderful Alexander Theroux quote from his novel Laura Warholic:

I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be ... I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish.


The Suck Fairy

From Jo Walton at Tor.com comes the idea of The Suck Fairy, that scourge of re-reading that somehow curdles fondly remembered books upon second reading. Working alongside the Suck Fairy are her siblings the Racism Fairy, the Sexism Fairy, and the Homophobia Fairy, according to Walton.

One might add the Bad Writing Fairy; sometimes re-reading fondly remembered pulp adventures from my junior high school years (I'm looking at you, Doc Savage) highlights the sheer awfulness of the prose.


Lavers on The Simple Life

My previous post Fred Stutzman and Facebook reminded me of an essay from the May/August 2000 issue of North American Review. The essay I tore out and kept in my "Essays" folder lo these many years was by the writer Norman Lavers, now retired from teaching English and enthusiastically maintaining a site on The Robber Flies of Crowley's Ridge, Arkansas. If you want to know all there is to know about these vicious critters, that's the site for you.

The essay he wrote, titled "On the Simple Life," is a fine personal essay that sweeps over the course of his life, the choices he made, and the choices he continues to make. It's a cranky, curmudgeonly view of the modern world. He preaches about retiring early in your life and then going to work, being frugal with your time, money, and attention ("kill your TV" advice), and generally simplifying your life by letting go of the things that aren't needed in favor of the essentials that honor you.

The reason I kept the essay, I think, was that he put into words something I'd not seen up to that point. I've seen it since (Stutzman mentions it in my previous post) but I've come back to it so much in my mind that I thought I'd put the passages here.

He compares the bombardment of TV images to the Web's bombardment of opinion, flash, etc. You can guess his opinion.

Get off the internet. Oh, how can I? It's got everything on it. Exactly, and you're letting it all into your house and into your mind. Be more selective...[O]n the net, I have my privacy. You don't, you've let the whole world in. You've let everybody in, and yet no one's there. Virtual people have invaded your privacy. They're god-awful boring, but you're too mesmerized to respond by turning them off...

An essential part of getting off the web is: Don't do e-mail. But it's so convenient, so cheap, you will tell me. That's the problem. ..I inveighed against e-mail in one of my classes and a girl said, "Oh, but this is how I've been able to keep in touch with all my friends from high school. Without e-mail I couldn't have done it." I was too polite, of course, to say, You should be leaving those kids behind and getting on with your life. If you wouldn't have kept in touch without e-mail, it means you probably shouldn't be keeping in touch now. They are getting in the way of your maturing.

If someone distant wants to get in touch with me, he's going to have to sit down and write me a letter. It takes time, it costs the price of a stamp. He's going to have to say something that will still be valid several days later when I receive his letter. If I'm not worth it to him, then his emailed Have a nice day! is not worth my receiving...If I had e-mail, I would have a sort of obligation to checked to see what I had each day, and 99% of it (to judge by what my friends say) would be trash, another invasion of privacy. With letters, they come in the box, you can open them when you're ready, read them a few times, answer at your leisure, It's a more humane rhythm. Letters can approach to literature. Can you imagine wanting to read Keats's collected e-mail notes? E-mail is like television: you do it because it is free and easy--but in return it takes away your time, and for one good thing you get from it, you get 99 things of dross. If you are actively doing literary or scientific research, where real information is being exchanged, or if it's part of your job, okay, yes. For communication with people, no.

Lavers' preferred mode of engagement is to grow one's own creative projects, having to do with art or with nature, activities that take you out of yourself and place you in a state of meditation. Hence his enthusiasm with the Robber Flies.

Yes, it's over the top, but I like his firm this-is-how-it-is tone, which is what makes reading essays fun. Certainly, junk mail is an invasion of privacy, and one is not ever obligated to return an email immediately after it's been received.

But I was struck by Lavers' point about e-mail keeping alive relationships that should probably die a natural death and Fred's point about middle-aged Facebook users reconnecting with people from their high school and college days 20 or more years before. There is the warm flush of remembering what we used to be like, and there's a pleasing nostalgia that's surely fine to experience now and then, if only to remind us that maybe those old days weren't so bad. But we aren't those people anymore, and I don't wish to go back to that foreign country anymore. (A no-prize for whoever gets that literary reference!) And the economics of energy, time, and attention are such that we only have resources for the immediate, not the distant.

When I entered NCSU in 1979, I kept in touch with a few friends from high school (some of whom were in my freshman classes) but by my sophomore year, I was in a new world with new friends. When I left college, it took longer to separate myself from that comfortable world, but I eventually landed in Rocky Mount and started a new life there. I left in 1988 and brought no one with me from my 4 years there. If email had been around then, how long would I have stayed attuned to the local gossip, the dramas? I don't know. Given my state of mind and emotions at the time, I would probably have kept up an unhealthy level of attachment. It was good for me that email and FB weren't around back then.

Instead, I did (and still do) as Lavers suggested: I wrote letters. Letters to friends served as my journal, my writing practice, my meditation time. These days, with so little time available to me to get into the mindset that letter-writing demands, I send cards instead. I even send them to friends to who live nearby. There's something just more special and personal to me when I see an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address. I think it's special enough to send to dear friends and I do it simply because I enjoy it. I don't expect reciprocity or obligation--that's not the reason to write to friends who've stood the test of time. One does it because of love and attachment and, I think, creative expression. Selfish reasons, ultimately, but delightful ones, as well.

Unit Structures

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03: (FILE PHOTO)  In this ph...
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Fred Stutzman is a PhD student at SILS and the creator of numerous good things, among them ClaimID and the Mac-based Freedom (which I used today to good effect).

He has a blog, Unit Structures, and tends to post announcements of upcoming events or good 'n' chewy postings related to his research interests of social networking and social software.

I liked today's post very much, which ties into one of my favorite aphorisms, from Louis Pasteur: "Opportunity favors the prepared mind." The lesson is that although passion for your product can pull you through the low times, you still need basic presentation skills if you want to be heard. My favorite line:

Notably, the research found that having taken public speaking lessons was a significant factor, indicating that communication skill, if not passion, was still important.

Digression 1: I've wondered about teachers who don't take public speaking or presentation classes or workshops -- or at the very least, some kind of vocal training. I know from the years I spent acting in amateur theater that a good voice was rare, but your own voice and presentation could be developed and made stronger. Certainly, professors get years of practice at speaking that most people who go to Toastmasters don't get, but still -- even in the classroom, it's all about presentation.

Whenever Facebook is in the news, Fred usually has a considered and contextual opinion on the issue, with a prescription for how FB should move forward from this. Facebook's recent misfire with its Terms of Service elicited a good-sized posting, with this as my favorite passage:

Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook as if it was a country. If Facebook were a country, it would more accurately resemble North Korea or China than the United States.

Fred also weighed in on the 25 Things meme that tagged all of us on FB, but uses it as a meditation on the phenomenon of refreshing or renewing dormant connections. I'm certainly seeing more people from my college years appearing on FB and connecting with me (or me touching base with them), and other friends are seeing high school chums reaching out to them. Fred wonders about the value of this activity:

We’ve all had the email or telephone reconnection with an old friend - after you have the getting-reacquainted conversation, is it really practical to re-integrate the individual into your life? More often than not, it simply isn’t practical (especially if geographic distance is a factor). This doesn’t take away from the wonder of reconnection and the warm feeling it produces - it just means that mediating technologies don’t change everything. Our everyday needs and processes exist higher up in the hierarchy of needs, and reconnection and maintenance of an extended social network is time-consuming.

Digression 2: I am, in fact, wondering how many of my current "cohort" at UNC I'll be in touch with after the next 2 years. When I think of the places I've lived and worked, I've actually carried very few people with me from those places. When I left a job, I left my co-workers there. The time we spent was productive and intense and, I hope, enjoyable, but it wasn't lasting, and the space I left behind was quickly filled.

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Is grad school a good idea?

Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she's talking to twenty-somethings and I'm a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.

The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task--rightly--for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point -- if you don't have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you -- it was a carelessly thought out remark.

As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that's what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world -- your bosses, your peers -- that you do in fact know what you're doing.

My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it's been a transformative experience for him: he's made great local contacts, he's extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.

For myself, I have enjoyed my master's experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I've grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I've found my professors to be up to date on what's happening in the big ol' world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.

Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?

That's the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.

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Drafting scenarios and stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • Gruen, D., Rauch, T., Redpath, S., & Ruettinger, S. (2002). The use of stories in user experience design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 14(3&4), 503-534.
  • Head, A. J. (2003). Personas: setting the stage for building usable information sites. Online, 27(4), 14-21.

<<In class, we wrote sample story/scenarios, and I refer to a great story written by a classmate about a guy at a party who is covertly listening to his music while grudgingly assisting his wife with hosting a house party.>>

I thought the story about the guy at the party trying to hide the earphone was great--it worked as a complete vignette, the character had a secret (which puts the reader on his side), and it has a nice curlicue at the end. It's complete in itself but could fit nicely inside a larger story about this character.

OK, now *that* I would consider a story, more so than the scenarios we read in the IBMers' paper.

I've been writing short stories off and on since college and did a couple of NaNoWriMo stints, so here's what I think about the narrative devices used to create stories that could be used for scenarios.

CHARACTERS. Some of the best ways to create a character include starting with an archetype (the Scrooge type, the strong and silent type, the talkative type, the Type A type), someone you know, or a fictional character you know really well. As you write and spend time with the character, you'll get to know them better and their own personality emerges, especially as you put them in difficult situations.

You can create an amalgam character or persona, but one person that has many different kinds of tags (like the primary persona in the Personas article we read) can seem a little unreal to me, very manufactured. At that point, I think you're checking stuff off a list rather than creating an imaginary character that *seems* real, which is the goal of fiction. I'd suggest starting simple and then adding stuff as it feels right.

One of the age-old questions to ask about a character to get your imagination primed, is to ask yourself what the character eats for breakfast. This is also a good opening question to loosen up interview subjects, BTW.

PLOT. The IBMers don't talk about the mechanics of plotting, which is one of the toughest jobs in story-writing. A story's theme is what the story's about; the story's plot is this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened.

Samuel R. Delany has a technique he calls "thickening the plot," in which the writer describes the setting in detail and gets the character interacting with it. So in the party story, we see the character moving around the house, taking things to the kitchen, anything to disengage himself from the party. People trying to talk to him, him turning to hide the earpiece, all help to thicken the plot and ratchet the tension that he'll be discovered.

RACHETING THE TENSION. In the party story, the tension is, "Will he be discovered?" There's no such tension in the IBM stories because, really, what's at stake for the characters? Nothing much. Particularly, that last story iteration they did was all Star Trek technobabble, there were too many characters (so no one person a reader could care about), and there was really no tension or emotion. (I'd say this is a danger of stories in the IBM method, in which lots of people start using the story as a dumping ground for their ideas and you start losing the main thread.)

But tugging on heartstrings isn't what scenarios are supposed to do; they're mainly of use to engage your imagination so you see the whole problem space, not just a little piece of it. (The other advantage being they get the picture and expectations from inside your head into someone else's head.)

The best IBM story was the one where the guy was installing software at 3 a.m. because the workers would be coming to do their jobs in a few hours. A ticking-bomb deadline is tried and true. I'd say that even the Madeline scenario <<a scenario provided by the professor, of someone using a health-care information system>> could use a ticking-bomb urgency, if the waiting room is crowded, people are being processed quickly, and the subject needs to hurry up so he can get back to work.

GOALS AND OBSTACLES. This is plot. An interesting character in an interesting situation creates the plot naturally without too much intervention. In the case of scenarios, we could introduce massive power failures, ice storms, zombies, etc. but they don't really help us with our purpose, which is to design a good user experience. (Another case where stories diverge from scenarios.) I would call scenarios not stories but soap operas: just one damn thing after another, until the fadeout.

That said, yes, the protagonist wants something and is frustrated by a stupid UI, a deadline, ice storm, zombies, etc. which means that something has to be at stake for him or her, and there have to be consequences for failure. In the party story, the husband gambled with multiple consequences of being discovered, which is what made it entertaining (another difference from scenarios: scenarios don't have to be entertaining, though they're more fun to read if they are). In the Madeline scenario, what are the consequences of not understanding the UI? Will I feel sorry for that character if they can't get the video working?

Here endeth another of my verbose postings. Carry on.

Article critiques: scenarios, stories

This post discusses the following readings:

  • Go, K., & Carroll, J.M. (2004). The blind men and the elephant: Views of scenario-based system design. interactions, 11(6), 44-53.
  • Gruen, D., Rauch, T., Redpath, S., & Ruettinger, S. (2002). The use of stories in user experience design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 14(3&4), 503-534.

I thought the best thing about the Go and Carroll article was their listing of differences between scenarios and specifications (though it would have worked better as a table than as text) and their review of the literature surrounding the techniques. I also liked the breakdown of strategy/requirements/HCI planning to year/day/moments. Apart from those squibs, I thought the article was unbelievably dry and unimaginative (which is odd, considering they're talking about the importance of imagination in creating scenarios); for one thing, they introduce the "blind men and the elephant" story in the lead without following it up in the rest of the article. Do scenarios help us see the elephant? Or do they only show us pieces? By the end of the article, we don't know and the authors haven't told us. (I wonder if the editor made them tack it on.)

The Gruen, et al., article by the IBMers I thought was more interesting and meaty; they seemed really in love with their new tool which seemed to have united disparate stakeholders within IBM as well as their clients. I also thought it was interesting how the stories could be decomposed for other audiences as well, down to the design, marketing, and documentation materials. They don't attempt to speculate as to *why* they think stories unite audiences with differing needs, but I'd guess that we're simply trained, from childhood onward, to think in terms of linear narrative. A page of prose describing someone solving a problem is easier to read and understand than a functional specification document, which requires a specialist to draft. Stories don't require specialists.

Their descriptions of its use made it seem like a silver bullet, and I would have liked to know what, if any, limitations they encountered. How do they control their stories, to keep them from becoming distended or unbalanced when descriptions get too specific?

I'd also say that what they're calling stories are not stories, but extended scenarios that use narrative devices like character, setting, plot, etc. The chief characteristic of a story is that the character is different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Their example scenarios don't have that quality; they're more like Star Trek problem stories: Picard is trapped on the holodeck--how do we get him out? No character in such stories really learns about himself or his life. The interest is mainly in seeing people spew technobabble and race against the clock.

Likewise, the IBM scenarios attempt to trap someone in a problem and watch them squirm to get out. The interest is in watching this particular character squirm (would a different character behave differently in the same situation?) and noting the details of what they do to solve their problem.