The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer

The device that set off such a furore on this blog about The Death of Publishers and also resulted in a feature in the Bookseller has finally arrived in my hands. While I’ve only been using it for a week, I think it would be useful to share some first impressions of the Sony Reader – after all, if it’s supposed to herald the downfall of an industry, there’s no time to lose!

The Sony Reader in perspective

The first thing you notice about the Sony Reader is that it’s unexpectedly small. I’d seen photos of it, and I was imagining something around the size of a hardback, what with the screen that dominates the device, but the Reader is actually shorter than a standard paperback, and a lot thinner. I suspect that one of Sony’s design priorities was making it smaller than a normal book.


In fact, when you close the ‘cover’ of the Reader, it becomes even more svelte and diminutive, more like a Moleskine notebook than an actual novel. This is a device that won’t embarrass you if you read it on the tube, and it’ll fit into practically any bag. So far, so good.

Real Ink vs. E-Ink

Can the Reader measure up to real ink? No.

The contrast on the Reader’s E-Ink display is just not comparable to any book; it’s more like dark grey on light grey than black and white. It’s harder to read in low light, and if you have poor eyesight, it probably won’t be very comfortable. Despite this, it’s still perfectly acceptable for most people. I’ve shown the Reader to a few friends and they’ve all declared that it looks fine to them. The issue isn’t that text on the Reader is bad – it’s that real ink is basically perfect. Continue reading “The Sony Reader: An Illustrated Primer”

8 Days Later

Did you know that the UK’s statutory holiday entitlement is increasing to 24 days on 1st October, and then 28 days a year after that? Because I sure as hell didn’t. For the majority of people in the UK, that’s an extra eight days holiday every year. Another eight 3-day weekends, or almost two whole extra weeks off.

Of course, even at 28 days holiday per year, we’re still at the bottom of the pile in the EU, but that’s to be expected, really. It sounds as if we may be getting an extra bank holiday or two anyway, so it’s all good news.

Clearly I should buy shares in travel, leisure and holiday companies.

The Videogame Straitjacket

Like many others, when I was kid, two of the games I had the most fun with were Lego and Meccano. It would be trite to go into the reasons why, and it’s enough to say that construction kits like these offer kids a unique place to use their imagination to build anything they want, and the freedom to experiment. Plus they’re cheap and pretty much indestructible, which always helps.

So when I read a review* of Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book Children at Play: An American History, I was pleased to see that he argued that children’s play has become far too regulated and controlled by adults. In terms of playgrounds that have built-in areas for attendants and ‘facilitators’, Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware county says:

“Parents are thinking that they’re helping kids with play that has a goal. It’s not really play, because play is something that’s self-determined.”

Chudacoff also makes a good point when comparing old-fashioned toys to ‘entertainment products’ (including, sadly, Lego kits that can only be built into a single prescribed model)?:

Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.

“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play.

One result is that a toy comes with a prepackaged back story and ready-made fantasy life, he said, meaning that “some of the freedom is lost, and unstructured play is limited.”

I found myself nodding vigorously at this page. It really is a shame that the most popular toys don’t aim to stimulate kids’ imaginations; instead, their goal is to capture their minds into a vast franchise that includes dolls, cartoons, toys, videogames, movies and books – no need for imagination here, we’ll spell it all out for you!

And then my nodding was abruptly terminated by the next paragraph:

Video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains. And online versions of traditional games like Monopoly don’t permit players to make up their own rules (like winning money when you land on Free Parking), to harvest the fake money and dice for an altogether different game or even to cheat.

Chudacoff has a good point here – at least when it comes to the games he’s thinking of. There are precious few videogames that allow for the same amount of freedom and play that, say, the outside world does, and a computer version of Monopoly is inferior to the physical version (although the less said about the credit card edition, the better). Continue reading “The Videogame Straitjacket”

All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take

If you’ve ever visited Oxford, chances are that you’ll spend some time in Radcliffe Square, admiring the University Library and the round Radcliffe Camera building. Along the east side of the the square is a long wall with a black metal gate set into it; people often poke their heads in to see an immaculate yet strangely deserted quadrangle. This is All Souls college.

Unlike most colleges in Oxford, All Souls does not admit undergraduates. It currently has 76 fellows, as well as a number of visiting fellows. For a college that has an endowment of around £144m, this is a small group indeed. Depending on their status and, for example, whether they teach at Oxford, fellows of All Souls receive a certain stipend and rooms; nothing huge, but enough for them to pursue whatever line of research they might want. This alone would be an attractive prospect for any academic, but the reputation of the college and fellows both current and past (e.g. Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Wren, Amartya Sen) including elevates the college into a realm that is occupied by, arguably, none other than itself.

All Souls holds a particular fascination for Oxford students. While most fellows who join the college are postdocs and are elected by its current members, every year, two graduate students – who might be as young as 21 – are admitted as Prize Fellows. The way these two people are chosen is through a famous exam.

The exam consists of five papers. Two are on general topics (PDF), such as:

  • Can terrorism be justified?
  • Would you have burned Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, as he requested in his will?
  • If the Greeks invented democracy, what is it?
  • Is good for literature?
  • Is China overrated?
  • What can we learn from Las Vegas?
  • Is Dark Energy more interesting than Dark Matter?

These two general papers have around 30-40 questions each, and candidates have to answer three questions on each, with three hours per paper (i.e. one hour per question). Two more papers are based on the candidate’s field of study, and cover Classics, Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy and Politics (all PDFs). These subject-specific papers have fewer questions per paper, and while they are relatively general questions, e.g.:

  • Whither social democracy after Tony Blair? (Politics)
  • Can animals think? (Philosophy)
  • Why was resistance to the Mongols so seldom successful? (History)
  • Write on any one of the following: games, food, body parts (English)

you clearly have to have a good grasp of the subjects; or at the very least, you would gain a real advantage from having studied them at the degree level. In other words, it would be difficult to wing it; there just aren’t enough ‘really general’ questions on the subject papers to make that possible.

These questions are all very interesting and I know that candidates enjoy being able to tackle such broad issues. Even so, the exam wouldn’t have its legendary status if it wasn’t for the fifth paper. Here is a question from last year’s fifth paper:

  • Water

That’s it. You have three hours to write an essay on ‘water’. You can do pretty much whatever you want, although they do discourage ‘verse, stories or autobiographical accounts’. Here are other questions: Continue reading “All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take”

Blind Light

Imagine walking in a mist so thick that you can’t see further than an outstretched arm. That’s what it was like to be inside Anthony Gormley’s Blind Light exhibit in the South Bank Centre.

It’s a very odd experience. There are 24 other people walking around inside the exhibit, which is about 10 meters squared, and even though you can hear than talking to each other and running around, you rarely see them at all. If you do, it’s only as shadows suddenly looming out of the greyness. Most people give you an embarrassed smile when they see you, and then drift off.

After a couple of minutes inside, you notice two things. Firstly, you begin to see floaters very clearly. These are the little transparent squiggles that you see floating across your field of vision occasionally. Normally you can’t see them because there’s too much stuff going on visually, but when you can’t see anything but grey, they really stand out. I suspect if you spent a lot of time in there you’d start to hallucinate.

The other thing you notice is the water condensing on your nose. Of course, it condenses everywhere, but for some reason your nose begins dripping with water; a strange thing, since it’s usually associated with the cold. The mist can also cause fits of coughing, if you’re not careful; it’s best to breathe through your nose, so as to avoid tickling your throat.

A common question about Blind Light is, how do you find your way out? The design of the exhibit gives an easy answer. You usually have to queue to get inside, and the queue snakes around the sides of the square glass walls. While waiting, you’ll see people gingerly approach the glass, peering outside, tracing their hands along the wall. They’re finding their way out the old-fashioned way – by following the walls.

So that’s the easy way, but it’s a little disappointing because it lets you see too much of the outside world, which is exactly not what you’ve gone into Blind Light for. The more interesting way is to simply wander around in a random walk, following the noise.

There’s a lot of noise in Blind Light; there are a lot of young people and kids inside. With zero visibility and the wet floors, you might think that they wouldn’t allow kids, but apparently not, and so during the daytime there are frequently children running around and shouting. The kids tend to shout all the time, but after a few exclamations upon entering, the adults whisper to each other.

Even if you can follow the noise to the exit, you can literally be a foot away and not know it. When right at the front of the queue, standing outside the exit, you occasionally see people walk right up to it from the inside, holding their arms outstretched. How can they not see where they are, you wonder impatiently. And yet from the inside, the only way you can be really sure is by stretching out your arm, and touching… nothing.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

One of my favourite authors is Ted Chiang. I’m not entirely sure what Ted does with his time, since over the course of seventeen years, he’s written fewer than a dozen short stories, the sum of which would easily fit into a typical novel. Of course, this has nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which contains such beautifully-wrought ideas and language that they remind me of Borges and Murakami put together.

Some of the stories have more of a scientific spin than others, and it probably eases the cognitive dissonance of journalists to call him a sci-fi writer, but if that were the case, it would only be so much as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy could be described as the same; in other words, they’ve all written sci-fi, but not as most people would know it.

Until this year, Ted had published only had one collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. This was a sad state of affairs for his fans, who were left hanging following his 2001 short story ‘Hell is the Absence of God’, which won pretty much every award available.

This year, a new collection finally emerged, called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Published by Subterranean Press, a specialist in limited-run books, the collection is Ted’s first ‘novel’. At sixty pages, I would disagree with that classification, but all the same, it was a new story. Knowing exactly what it had in its hands, Subterranean sold two versions of the novel; one was a cloth-bound hardback trade edition, which is now sold out, and the other was a limited edition edition of 200 copies, at $45.

I mulled over which edition to buy for a little while, but eventually my desire to own a piece of true Chiang memorabilia – and the weak dollar – conspired to make me order the limited edition. It arrived a few weeks ago, and I feel I made the right choice.

The book itself is a series of four intertwined stories set in medieval Baghdad, about the nature of fate and our acceptance of it. While it’s arguably a sci-fi novel, given that it concerns itself with time-travel, most agree that it’s more in the vein of Arabian Nights than anything else. I liken it to a perfectly crafted gourmet meal; small in size, yet containing a real variety of subtle flavours.

You might think that buying a sixty page book for $45 is slightly out of character for someone who believes in The Death of Publishers and the inexorable rise of free or cheap eBooks – but I don’t think this is contradictory. If my copy of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate was the same as a bog-standard paperback, I would have been disappointed. The reason why I spent $45 was to get something special – and that’s what I received.

The book comes bound in red leather, with a beautifully drawn dust jacket. The paper is of a high quality and feels like parchment. My copy is signed and numbered 24 out of 200. There are several lavish full-page illustrations, and dotted throughout are a number of smaller drawings that reflect details in the stories. It feels as if the physical book was designed hand-in-hand with the author, and the resulting product is that of a work of art. I’m going to hold on to this book for a long time, and unlike my other books, I’m not about to trade or sell it online. So why wouldn’t I spend $45 on it?

Publishers are beginning to catch on to this trend. Authors that have a particularly loyal following, such as JRR Tolkein and Haruki Murakami, are having their novels republished in increasingly elaborate editions. While at Borders today, I saw a £100 gilt-edged, leather-bound edition of Lord of the Rings, and a £30 cloth-bound edition of After Dark, with a hard case. I see both editions as being a rip-off in the sense that the quality of the physical product is in no way commensurate with the price they’re being sold at – especially when The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate is a mere £23 – but ultimately it shows that people are not merely buying these books for the words inside, but for the physical objects themselves. Continue reading “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

After Our Time

After listening to an edition of In Our Time about the Jacobite Rebellion, I found myself writing yet another post on this weblog inspired by that wonderful Radio 4 programme. As I was finishing it, I thought that with all the posts I was making relating to In Our Time, I should really make a new category for it. Or better yet, a new weblog…

A couple of weeks later, and I’ve set up a weblog – plus a forum and wiki – dedicated to In Our Time. Following much deliberation, I decided to name it After Our Time (thanks Naomi!) and I’ve already stocked it up with a few posts. I won’t spend too much time describing it here, since you can find that information on After Our Time’s first welcome post, but I have high hopes for it. In Our Time is a very unique programme with, I hope, very interesting listeners. I’m looking forward to meeting them on the website, even if – like all online communities – it does take time to grow. If you don’t want to keep checking After Our Time or subscribe to its RSS feed, you can always glance over to the sidebar on this site, where you’ll find links to the latest After Our Time posts.

The main impact on will be that I write a little less here; or more precisely, all of the posts that I would have written about In Our Time will go on the other weblog. So there’s really no loss, providing that you liked those posts in the first place – and if you didn’t, it’s actually a gain!

And if you wanted to read my post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and Scottish Bioweapons, here it is…

The Strength of Weak Ties

Anyone who’s read about social networks and the ‘tipping point’ will know how important the connections between people are. It’s not enough to look at just the number and the individuals in the connections though – you have to look at their strength. While reading an article (I forget which) about social networks, I spotted a reference to Mark Granovetter’s original 1973 paper on The Strength of Weak Ties (PDF).

This paper made an astonishing and counterintuitive claim – that weak ties between individuals are often more important than strong ties. To be clear, a strong tie might exist between family members or good friends, and a weak tie would exist between an old school friends who see each other once a year at Christmas. Granovetter’s paper is a little hard going for the first dozen or so pages, since it’s laden with a lot of theory and some specialised language, but it really gets going after that, when he starts quoting data:

In a random sample of recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers living in a Boston suburb, I asked those who found a new job through contacts how often they saw the contact around the time that he passed on job information to them…

Of those finding a job through contacts, 16.7% reported that they saw their contact often at the time, 55.6% said occasionally, and 27.8% rarely…

In many cases, the contact was someone only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged… It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

Remarkable indeed. Most people would approach friends for job leads first, not acquaintances, thinking that they would be more fruitful, but this is simply not the case (at least in general).

Towards the end of the papers is a wonderful section called ‘Weak Ties and Community Organization’. I recommend that you read it directly, since it’s written so well, but I’ll summarise below. Granovetter argues that when a community is completely partitioned into cliques, where strong ties vastly outnumber weak ties, it would be very difficult for that community to organise. Yes, you could provide news to everyone in the community, but would anyone do anything about it?:

Studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties… Enthusiasm for an organization in one clique, then, would not spread to others but would have to develop independently in each one to insure success.

This has powerful implications for communities shaped into cliques, such as the Italian community of Boston’s West End in the 50s and 60s, which was “unable to even form an organization to fight against the ‘urban renewal’ which ultimately destroyed it.” Weak ties are needed to allow information to spread between networks. Common sources of weak ties are clubs, work settings and formal organisations; so when you attend a conference every year, and simply spend a few minutes with a few dozen people there, you are refreshing those ties that allow information, gossip and job offers to spread.

Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to formalise and track weak ties; that’s why they’re so powerful. Anyone who wants to emulate or learn from those sites would do well to look back to the original research conducted in this area.

Food Miles

Sometimes, when I come across a particularly interesting article, I try to find the research paper that it’s based on. I don’t always read the entire paper (in fact, I normally skip over huge chunks) but it’s always instructive to see the results and analysis as the original author wrote them; it’s not rare for reporters misinterpret results or selectively quote from papers, for a variety of innocent and nefarious reasons. But even if the article is excellent, I get a buzz from reading the actual research. Maybe that’s just because I’m weird, or because I occasionally hanker for my neuroscience days, but I do feel that reading papers puts you as close as you’re going to get to the scientific process.

This post and the next are both about papers I read recently. I was going to put them in a single post, but it ended up being too long, so you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow for the second one.

Food Miles

The New York Times ran an op/ed piece called Food That Travels Well about the use of ‘food miles’ when it comes to labelling and buying food. The idea is simple – you find out how far each piece of food has travelled to reach a supermarket, you print that on the packaging, and let consumers decide whether they want to buy it. The unspoken but obvious assumption here is that the more miles food has travelled, the more carbon dioxide has been released, and the worse it is for the environment. Thus, you should favour local produce over foreign produce, even if it costs more, because it’s better for the environment.

When I first heard about food miles, I immediately thought there was something fishy about it. Apart from smacking of protectionism, it ignored a whole host of factors, such as the means of transport. If you’re (say) loading ten thousand tonnes of potatoes on a ship from America to the UK, will that release more carbon dioxide, per potato, than driving five tonnes of potatoes on a truck from one end of a county to another? The answer is, I have no idea. But it’s clear that some forms of transport are more polluting than others, and just looking at the physical distance covered is a poor way of measuring environmental impact.

The op/ed piece was about research conducted by Lincoln University in New Zealand, which went way beyond my transport concerns by doing a life cycle analysis on the transport and production of food. In other words, they looked at:

…Water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

What did they find?

…Lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

How similar? Referring to the original paper, Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry (PDF) by Saunders, Barber and Taylor:

The UK uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced than NZ, even including the energy associated with transport from NZ to the UK This reflects the less intensive production system in NZ than the UK, with lower inputs including energy…

NZ is also more energy efficient in producing and delivering apples to the UK market than the UK is. NZ energy costs for production are a third of those in the UK. Even when transport is added NZ energy costs are approximately 60 per cent of those in the UK. Consequentially the CO2 emissions per tonne of apples produced are also higher in the UK than in NZ, reflecting the higher energy use but also the lower emissions from NZ electricity generation.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Most foods grow better in some parts of the world than others; considerably better. Looking at the raw data, the UK uses vastly greater quantities of nitrogen fertiliser than NZ, partly due to those clover fields mentioned earlier. When it comes to dairy production, the UK has to bring in comparatively huge amounts of cereals and concentrates to feed animals, whereas in NZ, animals can graze outside all year round. All of this releases more carbon dioxide and pollution.

The point is, no matter what your priorities are, you can’t make a sensible decision on food purchases based solely on the distance food has travelled to get to your plate. There are good reasons for why someone might want to favour local produce over foreign produce. The environment is not necessarily one of them.

Homemade scales

Last month, I mentioned that I was selling a lot of stuff using eBay – mostly games, but also DVDs, books, phones, etc. By using the Royal Mail’s online postage printer, I was able to avoid visiting the Post Office. The only problem is that I don’t have my own scales.

For most items, you don’t need scales. The Royal Mail has a nifty weight comparison guide that tells you the approximately how much common items like books, DVDs, CDs and phones weigh. It tends to overestimate weights, but it’s good enough. When it comes to uncommon items, however, you need to find another solution.

I eventually hit upon the idea of using my steel ruler as a beam, a bed railing as a fulcrum, and an object of known weight as a counterbalance. A good source of objects with known weight is the kitchen, but if you’re looking for something lighter than a bag of sugar or tub of margarine, you have to be a bit more imaginative. It turns out that pretty much all modern consumer electronics such as digital cameras, mobile phones and MP3 players have their exact weight recorded on the web, typically in product reviews and specifications. The weight of my Nokia N73, for example, is exactly 116g. Put the N73 on the ruler, put the object whose weight you want to know on the other side, and you can figure out whether it’s lighter or heavier.

If you want to be exact about it, you can always start measuring the moment of the forces and so on (which is why it’s useful to use a ruler) but I find that only a certain amount of precision is required.

One of my abandoned ideas was simply weighing two objects in either hand and trying to figure out which was heavier. Apart from being a rather boring and unscientific solution, I decided that I would be too vulnerable to the size-weight illusion and gave it up.

All of this was rendered moot when my girlfriend bought me a very shiny electronic balance for my birthday, but here it is, mostly to be a service to the scale-less among us, and partly to convince you that there’s more to my life than tirades against publishers and the BBC…