Tag Archives: reading

Armada

Having read “Ready Player One” and seen the film recently, picking Ernest Cline’s next book, “Armada” was an easy choice. “Ready Player One” wasn’t my favourite book, but it was an entertaining read and that’s what I was looking for this time.

It pretty much exactly met those expectations. It’s well written and easy to read. There are all the retro-references you’d expect in a Cline book. The story moves along at a reasonable clip. The characters mostly make sense, though they could have been better developed.

My main problem is that the twists are so well sign-posted that they barely qualify. I suppose that just adds to the “easy to read” quality?

It’s not going to make you see the world differently or amaze you with new insight into the human condition. But not every book needs to do that. As a little light reading it totally hits the spot.

Fuzzy Nation

After reading quite a few non-fiction books I decided that this time I would pick a novel. Having read “Red Shirts” a couple of years ago, I randomly selected another John Scalzi book, “Fuzzy Nation.”

The history of this is a little unusual: it’s not an entirely original story. It’s based on an older story by H. Beam Piper called “Little Fuzzy.” (“Think of this as a ‘reboot’ of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science.)”) Not having read that, I can’t compare but I did enjoy this one.

The story revolves around Holloway, a surveyor of a remote planet who finds both a huge seam of sunstones (beautiful, rare) and a race of small, fuzzy creatures who may be sentient (in which case they’d own the sunstones). Holloway is a self-professed asshole and disbarred lawyer, which provides some humour and a dynamic with other characters.

It’s neither long nor complicated, but it’s easy and fun to read; a bit of a page-turner.

It’s not as good as “Red Shirts” but it’s entertaining and worth your time.

The Incomplete Book of Running

After all my fun with Couch to 5K and the Parkrun, The Incomplete Book of Running, about Peter Sagal‘s running experiences, looked like it might strike a chord.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord was the author. I guess if you’re American and listen to NPR and Wait wait… don’t tell me! you might know what you’re letting yourself in for. But I’m British and am more likely to be listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4. I don’t think that this missing knowledge affected my enjoyment of the book, though.

Anyway, his experience didn’t exactly mirror mine. He’d flirted with running earlier in life and got into running longer distances later. The book starts with him running the Boston marathon. I’m still at the point where 5km feels like a long distance and I barely did any exercise beyond walking previously. Still, there were enough parallels that I didn’t feel lost and the writing was easy and accessible.

It’s more about stories and anecdotes than running hints and tips, but it still covers a lot of ground, from training to motivation to the benefits and downsides.

There were certainly some bit where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was funny or just, sadly, true:

The problem with being a midlife-crisis runner is that once you start, you’re already in decline.

Then, towards the end, was this important passage:

The differences between running as a lifestyle and “jogging” as exercise are many and much debated, but the key one is this: You “jog” as necessary exercise, something to endure. You run with the expectation that this outing, today, will be the day when it all comes together.

I’ve not really thought about it before, but I’ve never been quite sure how to describe what I do. “Running” feels optimistic; the speed I go is hardly running. Then again, “jogging” conjures up some of the worst stereotypes, the bright Lycra, the headband.

That paragraph seals the deal: I run. I do do it for exercise, but I wouldn’t say that I endure it. If it wasn’t fun — or at least give a sense of achievement after I finish — I wouldn’t do it, I’d find some other form of exercise.

Overall, it’s hardly essential reading but if you like him from his radio programmes, you might get a kick out this book. For me, it was worth it as a way of figuring out my vocabulary.

TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.

The Trouble with eBooks

I want to like ebooks, I really do.

I like that the Kindle is smaller than a real paperback but can store dozens, hundreds even, of novels. I like that you can lose the hardware device and just download the books again. I like that I can read the same book on my iPhone as well as my iPad. It doesn’t even bother me that there’s no physical product. I’m not going to re-read most of my books yet they continue to take up the limited space in my London flat.

So why have I only ever bought a single ebook?

Here is the pricing for a book that I recently wanted to buy.

Paperback: 6.73.
Kindle: 6.99.

Here’s another.

Paperback: 5.59.
Kindle: 5.03.

I’m quoting prices on Amazon as it’s one of the bigger ebook suppliers. I’ve also used Apple’s iBooks, but downloads there are similarly (often higher) priced. But the gist is that ebooks are often more expensive than the equivalent paperback, and when they’re cheaper it’s not by much.

The publishers or Amazon might argue that the ebook is subject to VAT (sales tax) whereas paperbacks do not.

I would counter that with: I don’t care.

What I care about is “value for money.” All else being equal, I might consider an ebook to be worth more than a real book as it takes up less space and I can download it again if I lose my reader.

Unfortunately, all else is not equal. I can’t lend an ebook1. I can’t resell an ebook. I can’t donate a book I’ve read to the local library or to a charity shop. The fact that it’s worth pretty much nothing when I’ve finished it means that an ebook is worth considerably less to me than a real book.

Nevertheless, I think ebooks are almost certainly the future. Unlike audiobooks or TV versus radio, ebooks have exactly the same use-case as traditional books. The objections are almost entirely technical. The cost. The resolution or brightness of the screen. The battery life. These are all solvable. It’s the business model that needs work.

Steve Jobs famously said that people want to own their music and, to this date, Apple have only sold music; they’ve never rented it. On the other hand, you can rent movies and, if you live in the US, TV shows too. I think, broadly speaking, Jobs is correct2. You might listen to your favourite music dozens, even hundreds, of times. You’ll watch a movie or read a book, even a favourite one, only a few times by comparison.

So following that logic, I wonder why no-one has tried ebook rentals? In libraries we can already see that there’s a market for rented reading material. The same kind of DRM used with movies could be used for books, though we might need a little more than 24 hours to read a complete novel. I’d suggest around a couple of weeks or something more along the lines of a Netflix/LoveFilm model where you borrow n books at a time for as long as you subscribe.

Is there any reason why this won’t work?

  1. Lending Kindle books only works in the US. I like the idea of Lendle. iBooks doesn’t allow lending at all. []
  2. Spotify and Last.fm have the opposite problem to ebooks: they’re too cheap. Or at least too cheap to sustain the current system. Changing the system is a different, and entirely valid, conversation. []

My delicious.com bookmarks for October 20th through October 24th

  • Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant] – "Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year. Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here." Wholeheartedly agree with this post. Not knowing stuff is fine. Being proud of not knowing stuff? Not so much.
  • Twitter Can Predict the Stock Market – "Mao compared the national mood to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. She found that one emotion, calmness, lined up surprisingly well with the rises and falls of the stock market — but three or four days in advance."