A Whole Lot About Books

Today’s post is just a collection of things about books. These are things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, but none of them individually deserved a full post on its own. So I’m going to put them all together here and put them into a coherent narrative.

First off, you may have heard about the Kindle fiasco where Amazon removed a customer’s account without warning (or explanation) and then deleted all her books. Said customer’s account has been restored but it raises question about Amazon and the Kindle. I personally love the Kindle hardware and service, but I also want to actually own my books. I still buy paper copies of books that I want to keep and will read more than once. All my textbooks are paper too.

Luckily, many non-Amazon ebook vendors will provide DRM-free ePubs. If you have ePubs then the best reading experience for them is using the Readmill app on the iPad. They also recently added support for Adobe DRM, PDFs as well as books from the Kobo and Google Play store. Readmill will also sync your books to an online library and provides highlighting and social features to share what you’re reading. Highly recommended, I just wish they connected to Goodreads and Findings.

Unfortunately the Humble Bundle for eBooks has already ended. This bundle offered a selection of DRM-free ebooks (including some graphic novels) at your own price. The amount you paid got split between the authors, a number of charities and the Humble Bundle team. I hear that if eBooks counted all of these authors would have made the New York Times bestseller list. We can count this one as a success for DRM-free, post-scarcity publishing. You can sign up to receive notifications of later Humble Bundles and I hope to see similar bundles in the future.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. It offers examples and advice on forging a career that’s based not on nebulous definitions of passion but rather on cultivating rare and valuable skills. If you’ve been wanting to read this book but haven’t gotten around to it yet, here’s your chance. Social Books is a new online book. Members read one book a month, sharing and discussing it as they go along. Their first book is So Good and they’re starting November 1. I’ve already read the book but I think it would be a learning experience to do it again.

Last but not least, one of my friends from college has been writing a blog called Courtney Reads a Lot. If you guessed that it’s all about books, you guessed right. If you’re looking for new books to read or a constant stream of book-related posts subscribe to her blog.

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend and see you all next week.

Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.

The Age of the Cyborg is upon us

And they’re nothing like what the movies make them out to be. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) cyborgs are not a random and gruesome mix of metal and flesh out to destroy the rest of us. Rather, today’s cyborgs are… us. Each and every one of us, in some form or another. So what am I talking about and how did this come to pass?

For starters, technology, especially computer technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. And along with the computer has come the network. Within the next decade mobile broadband will become ubiquitous (at least in urban areas) meaning that we will always be connected to the full knowledge and collective intelligence of the internet. As a direct result we are all gradually becoming cyborgs: our machines, especially in the form of mobile network connected devices are becoming an inseparable part of us. Sure, we may not be jacking in with our brains as a part of the regular morning routine, but connecting to the global network of computers (and hence indirectly to everyone else using those computers) is already a routine occurrence which we don’t give a second thought.

A recent Wired article talks about how average chess players combined with the right machine assistance can beat out better human players as well as other players with better software. The key is in the human’s ability to make the most of their machine assistants: figuring out which machine results to accept, which to reject and how to ask the right questions. Our currently technology is in exactly the same position. The talent of the person using a computer or the computational power of the machine is less important than being able to combine the two properly.

Leaving chess aside, there are more practical areas where this combination of man and machine is producing great payoffs. Successful blogger and author Tim Ferriss makes no secret of the fact that he uses analytics extensively to fine-tune how his website operates and is viewed in order to maximize his earnings. In earlier days, Paul Graham created effectively the world’s first web application, Viaweb and successfully beat out better funded competitors by placing powerful tools (Common Lisp) in the hands of experienced users (himself and his team).

People my age and younger have never lived in a world when we couldn’t connect with people across the globe at the click of a mouse. All that has ever stood before us and the vast stores of information on the Internet has been a single text box with a button titled some variation of “Search”. We’re cyborgs in the sense that the use of our machines is natural and reflexive, requiring little explicit mental bandwidth. Who needs a port in the back of the skull when you have a copy of Google Hacks tucked into your brain?

Of course, not all cyborgs are made equal. Even among people my age there are both those who revel in technology and its gifts and those who would prefer to keep it at arm’s lengths. And I’m not talking about the difference between computer science graduate students and theater majors. I’m talking about the people who are content to use the Microsoft Word’s default font and paragraph spacing and those who spent hours tinkering with their websites to get things looking just right. I’m talking about the people who tweet a dozen times a day and those who log in to Facebook once a week. I’m talking about those who have three different emails and those who pull all their email into Gmail. I’m talking about… you get the point.

On the flip side there’s a careful balance between using technology to achieve a further goal (Tim Ferriss’ website tweaks) and technology for technology’s sake (the hours spent tweaking the CSS on a blog only your mum reads). The Wired article says that there is a difference between people who use technology productively and hence feel smarter and more focused and the people who seem lost and intimated by online life. I would add a third category: those who feel smarter, but really aren’t better than the baseline. Cyborgization may be becoming ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The growing cyborgization of our society is also the reason why I’m excited about the second coming of tablet computers: the iPad and whatever Chrome-based offering Google throws its weight behind. Take a few minutes to check out the new guided tours of the iPad and you might get a hint of what I feel. The interface is completely different from how we use computers today and I think that’s a great idea. Let’s face it: most people today don’t really need a real computer. They need basically two devices: a internet connection device and some sort of glorified typewriter/calculator for writing reports and spreadsheets. Of course the iPad doesn’t excite those of us who type hundreds of words a minute or write code for a living. That’s because we’ve already crossed the line of cyborgization: we know (or are at least trying to find out) what we can do with our machines. The iPad is for the people on the other side, those who couldn’t care less about how many cores or how much RAM they have. It’s for people who are more than willing to trade their freedom (and their wallets) for a computing experience that they can relate to better and easier. It’s for the mum who wants to snuggle up in bed with her kid and Winnie the Pooh. It’s for the people who still consider reading a newspaper in the morning a holy rite. It’s for the people who have by and large been on the outskirts of the computer technology revolutions of the last few decades. It’s for a new generation of cyborgs who stop thinking of their machines as computers and rather view them as constant, unobtrusive, electronic companions.

With some luck, my children will be growing up in a world where they are surrounded from birth by the warm embrace of the internet. For them, actually sitting down in front of a computer will be quaint and outmoded in the same way we don’t go to a landline phone to talk to someone anymore. And it will be devices like the iPad connecting remotely to powerful servers running recommendation engines and personalized search databases that will be their first connection to the world of computation. As Pranav Mistry says, people don’t really care about computation, they care about knowledge and information. We’ve been able to bring people closer to information by erasing it’s physicality and making everything available remotely. Our children will be getting that information without the burden of thinking about a browser or keyboard or URLs. For them, all sorts of data will be all around them accessible at the tap of a touchscreen (or hopefully without requiring even that).

Here’s looking forward to the Age of Cyborgs, of which we are the heralds and first citizens. We live in exciting times.