Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The USADA vs. Lance Armstrong

Posted on September 9th, 2012 in Books, Sports | No Comments »

I’m not really much of a cycling fan, but I am a sports fan who lived in Austin, TX for part of Lance Armstrong’s string of Tour de France victories. Thus, I am not completely unbiased when it comes to the recent USADA allegations against Lance. However, I don’t think anyone else is either. More importantly, the situation is far more complicated than the popular press has been reporting. To pick just one example, check out the Huffington Posts rather short blurb about the situation.

I didn’t write about most of the mainstream press stories because–stop the presses–this is a regular occurrence for the mainstream press. However, seeing John Gruber’s recent link to the new book coming out by Tyler Hamilton made me at least want to discuss this one element of the situation: There is no ‘smoking gun’ here; this situation is massively complicated. Hamilton may have absolutely no credibility left. He is either a nearly broke, mentally ill individual that basically drove away his first wife, or he is simply a divorcee suffering from depression and seeking to make some money by telling an important story. Either way, he’s not being altruistic about this situation; he’s here to hock a book not graciously unveil the smoking gun that should have been revealed years ago.

Many of the facts of this case can be interpreted one way or the other. We know for a fact that the USADA alleges that Armstrong was doping. Was the USADA simply doing its job or were they on a crusade against Lance? We know for a fact that Armstrong is not contesting the charges. Is not contesting the charges an admission of guilt or was Lance really just tired of the fighting? We know for a fact that Armstrong never actually failed a drug test during his career. Is that because he wasn’t doping or because he was simply better at it than everyone else?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and there are many parallels to baseball’s situation with the steroid era. How do you rewrite the record books to serve justice? It’s complicated. I think the best writing I’ve seen about Lance’s situation is from Craig Miller, a sports radio host in Dallas:

Do I think Lance doped? I think he’s a true freak of nature, and stronger in the mind than most athletes I’ve ever covered–yet, it’s hard to believe that he won cleanly when everyone else was doping. I believe he was better than everyone, but not that much better. However, the playing field was level–practically everyone in the 90′s and 00′s in the pro peloton was doping, therefore, Lance was the strongest. If the entire peloton, including Lance, had been clean, I believe Lance still wins. So, while I think it was highly probably that Lance doped, I don’t think it gave him an unfair advantage since everyone else was doping, too. It doesn’t make what any of them did right, it’s just (as Dan McDowell might say) the way it was.

I’m not sure I believe Lance was doping. He never failed a test during his career, and there were definitely others who did. It wasn’t like baseball prior to 2005; there was a testing procedure in place. If it wasn’t working, then we can fix it, but I’m tired of all the after-the-fact second guessing that goes on for decades. I’m starting to feel that the best approach to situations like this is to have a testing process and stick with it. If someone fails at the time, then they are out. If someone doesn’t fail, then they are in. If they were clever enough to beat the test, then so be it. Once you start questioning people who haven’t failed a test, then the whole thing devolves into a giant “he said, she said” argument with tons of money on both sides. Situations like that are massively complicated, and no one ever really wins them.

Book: The Friar and The Cipher

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 in Books, Computer Security | No Comments »

I picked up a copy of The Friar and The Cipher by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone from a used book store called Recycled Books in Denton, TX over Thanksgiving weekend. Sometimes when I’m in a book store with that much personality I will find a book that fascinates me, I’ll pick it up, and I’ll read it all rather quickly. The last time I did that was with Surveillance. I enjoyed finding both of those books in their respective used book stores, and reading something unscheduled and totally off my radar is something I plan to do again in the future.

I finished reading The Friar and The Cipher in less than a week, but it’s taken me quite some time to write the review of it. I was interested in the book because I love cryptography and everything on the dust jacket of the book indicated that it was roughly half about the Voynich manuscript. The Voynich manuscript is one of the most interesting puzzles in cryptography and linguistics. It’s a 240 page book written in the early 15th century, and its contents remain a complete mystery. The script is not latin, arabic, or any other recognizable alphabet, but the arrangement and frequency of the characters appear to have many of the same characteristics of natural languages. Deciphering it would almost certainly become a world-wide story regardless of what it actually says.

However, having read the book, saying that The Friar and The Cipher is about the Voynich manuscript feels extremely misleading. Most of the book is about Roger Bacon, whom the authors believe is the author of the Voynich manuscript, and the history of science and the Catholic church. Although the book is extremely readable, chapter after chapter about Roger Bacon, Thomas Acquinas, and the early debate between science and religion was not what I expected. Luckily, I find those topics interesting as well. In fact, I’ve read quite a bit about the debate regarding the interplay of science and religion. If I didn’t have that background, I would have felt rather cheated.

Frankly, this book didn’t satisfy my desire to learn more about the Voynich manuscript, and I would only recommend it as a book about the Voynich manuscript because of the dearth of material covering that mystery. Still, you might be better served by picking randomly from the further reading list on its Wikipedia page.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Lawrence OP

The authors don’t present material as unbiased journalists; they emphatically present their opinions that Roger Bacon has yet to receive proper recognition for his work and that Bacon is the most likely author of the Voynich manuscript. As a result, the book reads as rather one-sided. They lay much of the blame for this on the Catholic church, which may be justified, but they also seem willing to take shots at Christianity in general. They take the position that science and religion are completely incompatible as if there weren’t even a debate about it. They also make broad statements about “the church” as if they are fact even though they directly contradict other authors without even mentioning the other interpretation. (For examples, read the Amazon reviews. I won’t repeat their examples here.)

Books that purport to explore a mystery should at least attempt to be unbiased. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already familiar with both cryptography and the debate between science and religion. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about those topics with knowledgeable folks, then you will find it hard to discern between fact and opinion while reading The Friar and The Cipher. Still, the book was not irredeemably bad. I did learn a little bit more about church history, and it’s sparked my interest in reading more unbiased accounts of that time period. Besides, it was a quick read. There probably aren’t that many people who would be interested in The Friar and The Cipher, but it’s interesting if you consider yourself to fit that category.

Book: In The Plex

Posted on December 28th, 2011 in Books, Technology | No Comments »

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is the single best account of Google from conception to the present. The book is a coming of age story of a multi-billion dollar company. It starts at the birth of the company and ends with the transition of power from Eric Schmidt to Larry Page, who earlier this year became CEO of the company he co-founded with Sergey Brin.

In The Plex focuses more on “how Google thinks and works” than on “how Google shapes our live.” To that end it is a better book about the business of technology than a book describing the impact of Google on our culture. I was a little surprised by this because The Perfect Thing is the best single description of the cultural impact of a piece of technology that I’ve ever read. However, Levy’s decision to focus on Google’s business impact probably gives the book more shelf-life (Yeah, I’m not apologizing for that pun.) since Google’s impact on our culture is still being played out. Google introduced many of the fundamental ideas about cloud computing to the average person, and society definitely hasn’t fully grasped the implications of “the cloud” in our society. Still, the early history of Google and their process for building and managing a technology company are well-documented in the book, and this will prove valuable for many years to come.

The book consists of seven parts, with a prologue and an epilogue. The first four parts are outstanding, classic Steven Levy work. Google’s unreal, rapid growth; its famous hiring practices; and its lavish employee benefits are all well-cataloged here. Levy does an amazing job conveying tons of information in an extremely short space here. I enjoyed Levy’s choice to organize this material topically as opposed to chronologically. So many things were happening so quickly with Google, that describing them in the order they happened would have utterly overwhelmed the reader.

The last three parts of the book are where he starts to lose me. Levy sort of gives Google a bit of a pass on some rather important mistakes that they’ve made. Part Five covers everything from YouTube and Android to all the random other things that Google does, but it feels slanted towards “successes” rather than mistakes, which are briefly described in the epilogue. Part Six covers Google’s ventures in China, but it also feels a bit pro-Google. What part of “Don’t be Evil” includes actively supporting the Chinese government? Part Seven focuses on the impact Google has had on the government and the various lawsuits that have become major national news (e.g. Book Search). These also seem rather slanted to me. For example, many of the Googlers who went to work for the White House or other branches of the government complained that they weren’t able to work at Google speed while they were there. This implies that Google is somehow impressively fast, when the reality is that a cadre of Molasses manufacturing executives could switch to government work and discover whole new levels of sluggish bureaucracy.

Those last three parts weren’t so much inaccurately puffing up the accomplishments of Google as much as they were simply not quite telling the whole story. Levy minimizes many of the “negatives.” Google’s Buzz snafu was relegated to a couple of pages in the epilogue. Google’s WiFi data collection as a part of their street view project is similarly lacking in coverage. Levy should have investigated these incidents thoroughly. How does a company as important at Google make mistakes like these? A book with the subtitle “how Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives” should provide more detailed answers.

The only pro-Google aspect of the last three parts that was missing or incomplete was the China hacking incident. Although this was covered from the Google perspective, it was a major incident for other technology companies and more importantly for the U.S. Government. The incident forces several questions implied by the information technology revolution like: How should we respond to international hacking incidents? What is the role of the U.S. Government in protecting companies that have been hacked by foreign governments? And what is the legal process for adjudicating international hacking incidents? These are critical questions that were first brought to the national conversation by the Google hacking incident. We don’t have answers to them, but they aren’t even adequately described as important in the book.

Steven Levy is one of my favorite technical authors, and I’ve read many of his books. I just recently finished Insanely Great, and I previously read both Crypto and The Perfect Thing. If I were ranking them, I would probably have to place this book at the end of that list, which is more to say that his other books were fantastic and this one was merely good.

Book: Insanely Great

Posted on October 10th, 2011 in Books | No Comments »

Insanely Great by Steven Levy is a book that I picked up at a Half Price Books in Indianapolis a couple of years ago. I had previously read Crypto and The Perfect Thing, both by Steven Levy, and I enjoyed them. Although I never owned a Mac when this book was published (or re-published, since the version I read had two Afterwords), I have owned and used Macs regularly since 2004. I always had a strong interest in reading it, but somehow never got around to doing so.

Steve Jobs died this week, and my interest in the book changed. I’m not sure when I started it, but it must have been sometime Thursday evening. I finished it this past Saturday.

The book is a wonderful combination of both its title and its subtitle. The title comes from Steve Jobs’s desire to one-up the development of the Apple Lisa, which was just a ‘great’ computer. Steve wanted the Macintosh to be ‘insanely great’ and much of the book focuses on Steve Jobs’s influence on the development of computers at Apple. The subtitle of the book is “The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything,” and the remainder of the book focuses on illuminating just how important the Macintosh was to computing.

The ‘title’ part of this book is easier to believe than the ‘subtitle’ part. Steve Jobs clearly had a profound influence on the development of the Macintosh. Many of the quotes from those who were interviewed for the book point to Jobs as the largest individual influence on the development of the Macintosh. It’s worth noting that this book was originally published in 1994, prior to Steve Jobs’s return to Apple as CEO. Thus, it wasn’t possible for Levy to be influenced by Jobs’s success in turning Apple around.

It’s difficult to evaluate the ‘subtitle’ part of the book because history doesn’t always allow us to identify exactly why something happened. It’s certainly true that everything changed, but it’s not certain that the Macintosh was the reason for that change. If the Macintosh had never been developed, the desktop metaphor and the mouse could still have become the dominant paradigm for computing. The Macintosh was the first commercially-available personal computer that used these devices, and it also demonstrated them to be successful.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to prove that these concepts would have failed without the Macintosh to popularize them. As Insanely Great mentions, both of the desktop metaphor and the mouse were originally developed elsewhere in the computing industry. Obviously, these concepts were a big part of the success of personal computers. Historians are simply left to assign credit where credit is due. Levy clearly places the lion’s share of that credit on the Macintosh.

Levy includes quite a bit of material from his numerous interviews with many of the people who were involved with the development of the Macintosh. These are quite fascinating, and they definitely provide some insight into the thought process that went into the creation of the Mac.

Levy also includes some of his own personal observations of computing. In fact, the last official chapter of the book details some of his own problems using a Macintosh to write the book itself. These anecdotes range from interesting insights to rather bland, subjective commentary. I sort of wished that Levy kept the focus on the Mac and the people who developed it. Still, if an author is going to provide an opinion, I would prefer that they do so directly rather than try to embed it into the rest of the story.

Overall, I would recommend Insanely Great to anyone interested in the early history of the personal computer. Although, I thought Crypto was definitively better and The Perfect Thing was somewhat better, Insanely Great is still a extremely well-written, easy to read, and enjoyable. Lastly, for anyone else waiting for Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, this is a quick read that may alleviate some of the wait.

Book: The Tipping Point

Posted on October 9th, 2011 in Books | No Comments »

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is Malcolm Gladwell‘s first and probably best-known book. I’ve previously read and reviewed Blink and Outliers, his second and third books respectively.

The Tipping Point is a book that investigates the causes of radical change. Gladwell is interested in the rapid, dramatic change that is exhibited by epidemics, and he uses the science of epidemiology to interpret what he calls a social epidemic. The Wikipedia article on the book breaks down how an understanding of epidemiology can be applied to social concepts so well that I’m not going to rehash these concepts here. Instead, I’ll just urge you to go there and read the article.

Gladwell’s books have been successful in no small part due to the fascinating examples and stories packed within them, and The Tipping Point is no exception. In fact, one concern I had with Outliers was that the stories were so compelling that they covered up the fact that his overall theme wasn’t particularly well-defined. This doesn’t show nearly as much in The Tipping Point, which probably is the best of any of his books at combining a clear central thesis with compelling examples and illustrations.

My major concern with The Tipping Point is that it introduces the social epidemic as if were science on par with actual epidemiology. It’s not. The Tipping Point was not a peer-reviewed book, and matching a pattern to previously gathered data sets isn’t exactly the scientific method. Establishing a causal relationship is more difficult than that.

This lack of scientific rigor doesn’t mean that the book isn’t entertaining or compelling. It also doesn’t mean that the book won’t make you think a little differently about the world. All it means is that Gladwell’s conception of The Tipping Point hasn’t gone through the rigors of scientific validation. (If you’re interested in some examples of the problems this causes, then I would again refer you to Wikipedia.)

All in all, the book was entertaining, and I would recommend it. However, I wouldn’t treat it as if it were anything other than compelling journalism mixed with masterful storytelling. In fact, it makes me want to re-read Blink. It may suffer from some of the same problems, and I didn’t seem to mention them in my review of it.

Book: Admission

Posted on August 5th, 2011 in Books, Education, Life | No Comments »

I should have written this book review months ago since I read the book last spring. I only needed about two or three evenings to read it, and as soon as I finished, I called Allison and urged her to read it. I had that same sort of euphoria that I had immediately after watching the Transformers movie for the first time, but I wonder if re-reading the book would also produce the same sort of “what the hell was I thinking” experience produced after watching the Transformers movie for the second time. Unfortunately, as a grad student, if you read a 464 page book over two or three evenings, then your next three months are going to be busy trying to catch up on all the work you didn’t complete. Needless to say, I’ve only read the book once, and I’m only now getting around to writing the review.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is about a Princeton University admissions officer named Portia Nathan. She begins the novel with complete faith that her role as an admissions office is critical to the success and prestige of Princeton University. Her work is demanding, perhaps brutally so, but she is clearly passionate about it. She also begins the novel in an idealized domestic relationship with a Princeton English professor, but it becomes clear early in the book that they have lost whatever passion they may have had for each other.

Portia’s romances are the main plot of the book, but they are a bit ham-fisted and read more like a soap opera than, well, some soap operas. In fact, the product description for the book uses the following phrase to describe it:

Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.

Pretty cheesy, right? Ask anyone who knows me and you’ll find that I’m a big fan of puns, but this kind of wordplay fails to interest even me. Portia has a secret that gets “let out” over the course of the book, but I don’t have to tell you about it because it will be rather easy to guess once you start reading the book. The characters are interesting and the scenes are engaging, but the plot just doesn’t work when viewed holistically. It reads like the novel equivalent of taking a great commercial series and turning it into a complete television show.

Despite the somewhat clumsy love story, Admission does have an extremely engaging sub-plot surrounding the admissions process itself. Obviously, I am heavily biased as to whether or not this sub-plot is truly “engaging.” I’m a PhD Candidate in Computer Science at NCSU, and I’ve spent quite a lot of my life in some part of academia or another. It isn’t hard to convince me about the importance of education, and I’ve always been fascinated with attempts to measure learning, achievement, or accomplishment. Still, any one of the millions of people who have applied to college tacitly understands the idiosyncrasies, inaccuracies, and theater of this process. Although some reviews might say that the book “includes too many wooden monologues explaining in detail how [the admissions] process works,” I don’t think I’m alone in my interest for this part of the book.

Anyone who has applied to college (or has a child planning to do so) has almost certainly wondered about the admissions officers. Will someone actually read this? What are they really looking for? What will they think about my transcript, that award I won, or my extra-curricular activities? What will they think about me? For the somewhat introspective among us, applying to college can be even more brutal than the process Portia goes through to make her decisions in the book. Clichés are never more true for anyone than they are for high school senior applying to college. They are full of potential. They have their whole lives in front of them. They can be anything they want to be. Their future rests on what happens to that application.

College applicants are subject to the ultimate “fear of missing out” because of the ponderous implications of the admissions decision. The fear of missing out (FOMO, for short) has recently been described as “a crucial key to understanding social software” because:

Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

FOMO is also crucial to understanding college admissions for basically the same reasons. What college graduate hasn’t wondered whether or not their life would have been “better” if only they went to a “better” college? Applicants fear missing out on some unknowable future. Admissions officers fear missing out on potential future prestige for their university if they aren’t able to accurately identify the best students. Admission explores FOMO from both sides throughout the book. Each chapter of the book begins with an admissions essay excerpt from one of the students that Portia is reviewing. The essays are humorous, serious, deep, and emotional. They may be the best part of the book because they so palpably convey the fear (and vulnerability) inherent on both sides of the process. I often found myself starting a new chapter simply because I wanted to read the lead-in essay.

Unfortunately, much like the love story, the admissions process subplot has a somewhat predictable climax involving Portia’s decision on a particular application. It’s not as inevitable as the ending for the love story, but Portia’s character seems to telegraph her decision a bit. Regardless, it’s a fascinating problem, and I’m not sure what I would have done in her position.

Despite my concerns with the plot, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in exploring college admissions or anyone interested in exploring the broader impact of important decisions on young adults. The book has been out long enough that you should be able to find a used copy online without having to shell out much cash. It’s a fun, quick read, but I wouldn’t recommend buying a new copy.

Peter Jackson Starts Shooting The Hobbit

Posted on April 15th, 2011 in Books, Entertainment, Movies | No Comments »

If you’re reading this blog, then there’s an excellent chance you’re interested in this video from Peter Jackson. He walks through several of the sets, costumes, and lots of other pre-production items. It’s definitely worth watching.

My main concern with the movie version of The Hobbit is that I don’t know how they are going to translate the more literary elements of the book to the silver screen. Chapter 5, in particular, worries me. The chapter is titled “Riddles in the Dark,” and it is filled with a lot of both riddles and darkness. It’s probably my favorite single chapter of any novel I’ve ever read. Sometimes, I’ll go back and just re-read that one chapter randomly. How do you portray a play on words in a movie without losing the effect that it has on the reader?

Maybe I’m too invested in it as a written work to imagine it working in a movie, but I don’t think I’m the only one with concerns. Then again, maybe I’m worried over nothing. I had similar concerns with the original Lord of the Rings movies, and those turned out well. It’s nice to see that they are actually making the movies now.

It’s Time to Purchase a Nook or Kindle

Posted on October 28th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment | 6 Comments »

Recently, my friend Mike wrote a post about why he hasn’t purchased an e-reader such as the Nook or Kindle. Since this post is a direct response to his, I would highly recommend reading his first.

Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Done? Cool. Let’s move on.

I should say up front that I actually agree with most of his points, but only under the premise that the entire discussion relates to academia. Although he doesn’t come right out and say his decision not to buy an e-reader is based on its utility for academic study, he alludes to the fact that someone asked him “a few months ago about seminary and e-readers.” There are numerous reasons why e-readers aren’t quite there yet for academic work (and maybe I’ll post about those later), but even academics read more than just academic work. If you read for fun, now is the time to buy.

Consider Mike’s six points from the perspective of a recreational reader. He lists two points in favor of e-readers: size/portability and search, whereas he lists four in favor of physical books tactility, reading speed, annotation, and ownership.

Size/Portability: If I’m reading a book for fun, this is a clear victory the vast majority of the time. All other things being equal, books are heavy and take up space. These may be their two primary disadvantages. They are the quintessential piece of inert clutter.

Size/Portability Verdict: A clear win for e-readers.

Search: I’m not even sure search makes sense outside of an academic context. I can’t think of a single time that I’ve wished that I had the ability to perform a textual search of a novel I was reading for fun. Of course, for academic work search is absolutely critical. This is actually one of the reasons I believe Michael was only considering an academia in his discussion.

Search Verdict: Because search is pointless for non-academic reading, I will award this as a point in favor of physical books.

Tactility: If we’re talking about right now, today, I would say this is sort of a toss-up, and Mike sort of intimates as much when he indicates that there’s a big difference between a well-bound book and a poorly-bound one. I certainly appreciate the feel of a high quality binding in my hand while reading, but I also appreciate the feel of a high quality device in my hand. My iPhone feels better in my hand than the vast majority of books that I own. I don’t think e-readers are quite up to Apple’s level of quality hardware design yet, but they aren’t that far off.

Maybe a better way to approach this is on a per-book basis. Sure, you can sometimes buy the latest bestselling piece of fun fiction in hardback, and it will probably be a better tactile experience when reading. However, you’re going to be paying $20 or more for it. You can get the vast majority of those books in electronic form for half the price, and the tactile experience might be just a little bit worse.

If you’re an avid paperback reader, then think about all the times you’ve gotten a cramp from trying to hold a paperback book with a poorly glued binding for hours. The idea of a Nook or Kindle with no binding starts to become quite enviable. Sure, you might pay a couple bucks more than you would for the paperback version. Of course, if you’re buying a paperback then you’re probably not all that interested in hanging on to it forever, so it’ll just end up cluttering up your bookshelf at the end of the day.

Here’s the kicker: Library books. Many libraries are now lending electronic books. This means your options at the Library are an e-book on your personal e-reader or a hardback with the dustcover taped to it that may have been heavily used. Now, there are several possible advantages. Last January I was at a Reader Privacy event at UNC where there was some discussion of how people sometimes left fun notes in the pages of their library books. You might get a library book that’s got some fun writing in the margin. Then again, you might hate what the previous reader thought about the book. However, if you get the e-book, you definitely won’t get any of the negatives like a book that’s basically falling apart or one that has a few key pages torn out of it.

Tactility Verdict: The best possible tactile experience is definitely a well-bound hardback book, but unless you’re only reading well-bound hardback books I think e-readers are probably better on average.

Reading Speed: When I was in 8th grade I came across some book that purported to be able to double my reading speed with just a few months of training. The premise of these improvements was based on self-discipline and learning to train yourself to read in a particular way. The book also talked about electronic techniques such as using backlit paper that highlights text based on a timer for you. I imagine that this sort of thing will eventually be standard software on several e-readers.

Still, that’s the future. Right now, there are some studies that show reading a physical book is still faster. Mike points this out in his post. I was personally concerned about this as well since the e-ink screens in the Nook and the Kindle are a bit slow to update. However, everyone that I’ve spoken to feels like the difference in reading speed is negligible. Also, if you consider only fun reading, then you might find that you can finish books faster simply because you can now carry one with you all the time.

Reading Speed Verdict: This is a wash in my book. It may eventually become a win for e-readers though.

Annotation: Annotation isn’t quite as pointless as search is for fun reading, but it’s still not all that useful. I don’t annotate my academic books that much, but I have found it to be quite useful in that context. I can’t recall ever finding it useful to annotate a book that I was reading for fun. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some people actually do find annotations in fun books to be useful.

There are several important differences between annotations in physical books and those in e-books. One key difference is that with a physical book your annotations are limited in size based on the margin space available. Another is that annotations are easier to notice and skim in a physical book. Then again, you can (or will be able to) search your annotations.

At the end of the day, annotations depend heavily on what you want to do with them. If you’re making notes for a book report or book club, then you might need the extra “space” that you get with electronic annotations. (Also, the ability to perform textual searches on your annotations would be nice.) If you’re just marking passages you would like to be able to find easily, then there are probably other things (like electronic bookmarks) that would serve your purpose for e-readers.

Annotation Verdict: A victory for e-readers, though this is admittedly not something I would really take advantage of for fun reading.

Ownership: As Mike points out, ownership is extremely important. People want to be able to lend, borrow, resell, and give away books that they buy. When the Kindle first came out, ownership figured heavily in my first thoughts in basically two ways: I didn’t want all my books controlled under DRM and I wanted the ability to access them programmatically.

DRM stands for digital rights management, and it limits what “owners” of a book can do in an attempt to ensure that sellers, such as Amazon, are being paid for each copy of a book that people read. Essentially, this is an attempt to prevent people from downloading and reading e-books for free. Unfortunately, DRM causes way too many problems for legitimate purchasers of content in the process of attempting to distinguish legal uses from illegal uses. Check out this comic for a frighteningly accurate representation of how DRM works in the real world. In fact, DRM allows companies to do some things that would make great authors like Orwell and Kafka roll over in their graves, like tracking everything you read. I can’t understate this point. It is just critical, and the privacy concerns for DRM-enabled e-readers could be the subject of numerous posts. This EFF guide gives some more details. Some companies are realizing that DRM isn’t worth it, but most e-readers still support DRM heavily. This remains a major strike against them in my opinion.

The second concern I mentioned was that I wanted programmatic access to my e-books. I know most folks don’t care about this sort of thing, but I would like to be able to write programs that can take text from my e-books as data. It’s not that I have a particularly great idea for a program that I would go out and write right now, but I know that if all programmers have access, then several of them will probably write something awesome and share it with everyone else. This is why companies like Twitter develop extensive open API’s that any programmer can use. This is a huge part of why open source software works. The effects of direct programmatic access to a computing device (or a lack thereof) is a huge discussion that could span multiple posts. Suffice it to say that until programmers have more access, e-readers will be less innovative than they could be. Again, this remains a major strike against e-readers.

Ownership Verdict: True ownership of a book still requires having a physical copy of that book.

So why would I say that it’s time to purchase a Nook or a Kindle despite this rather mixed review of Mike’s attributes? More importantly, why would I recommend an e-reader despite the critical ownership and privacy concerns? To put it simply, not all books are the same. There are many books that don’t merit the care and attention of academic material. Also, ownership isn’t everything. There are many, many books that I could enjoy reading without actually owning them. In fact, the only books that I would want to have a physical copy of are (to steal some beautiful wording from Allison) “books to make a library of.” Here’s her full quote:

These are books that we aim to make a library of. Making a library is not putting all your old college textbooks on a shelf. Library making is the thoughtful acquisition of high quality books worthy of multiple readings and thoughtful reflection. Books whose readings will not go out of style, and whose premises, plots, and social commentary transcend writing styles and generations.

Books like these are things you would (as Mike says) bequeath to your progeny, but they aren’t the only books that I read. Will my kids really need a complete set of R.A. Salvatore books? Will they really want my copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done? At what point is a book worthy of being passed on to the next generation? Surely not every book falls into that category, and I don’t even think that’s really a knock on those books. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail may be a great book, but it’s not a timeless book to be cherished from one generation to the next. Books that explain new and important concepts are eventually expendable because that concept becomes well-established or obsolete. There’s simply not as much need to explain it to people.

Once we fall into this sort of dilemma, it’s time to consider the economics of the situation. How many books of this fun-to-read or important-but-not-timeless category do you have to read in the next year to make the purchase of a Nook worthwhile? Don’t forget that both the Nook and the Kindle had huge price drops this past summer.

Let’s assume that you’re getting a wifi-only Nook, since you want to use it at the library and the Kindle doesn’t support that. The cost is $150 bucks. This New York Times article talking about the price of e-books uses David Baldacci as an example, which works well for me because his books may be fun to read, but they certainly aren’t timeless works of fiction set to be handed down from generation to generation. The average price of one of his new hardback books is $26 buck, whereas the average price of is somewhere between $10 and $15 bucks. Based on these prices, you would only need to purchase and read 10 to 15 e-books to make up for the cost of buying your Nook. Every e-book you read after that is pure savings to you.

So, the question boils down to this: Are you going to read three to five books per year over the next three years that you’re pretty sure won’t stand the test of time for your children to cherish them?

That’s the breaking point for me. I usually read between 20 to 25 books per year (plus a ton of other stuff on the Internet). Most of these books aren’t pop fiction, sci-fi, or fantasy (such as R.A. Salvatore). Last year I read about 27 books and six of them were fantasy books. (This year I’m not doing nearly as well.) Still, I’m still pretty sure that I read at least five books every year that aren’t worth passing along to my children, and it is probably more like fifteen or eighteen. (How many book did you read this year because your parents bequeathed them to you?) In fact, it would be a huge burden for my children to lug around a physical copy of every book that I’ve ever read. These things take up quite a bit of space. I have stacks and stacks of books around my place for which I don’t have shelves. Sure, I could curate a library, but that means getting rid of physical books that I’ve purchased, so why not preemptively purchase a digital version of books I’m pretty sure aren’t timeless but are still interesting to read?

Even the folks that don’t think it’s worthwhile right now have to admit that technology moves pretty quickly. At some point, the prices will stabilize. We may even have advertising subsidized reading, which could be great for pop fiction. At some point, e-reader feature sets will become more clear. We don’t even know if we want color yet, and we have to consider the possibility of text-to-speech or other features in the future.

Physical books are going to be around for the foreseeable future, probably many, many generations. They have an aesthetic all their own. However, at some point, every reader must decide if it makes sense to start getting e-books. They will have to consider the economics of the situation as I did in this post. They will find a breaking point where it just makes more sense to get an e-reader and start getting some books in an electronic format. I’m not saying that e-readers are perfect. My idyllic reading experience is still probably reading a timeless, though-provoking hardback from my family library with a cup of coffee out on the porch of a cabin by the lake. But how often does that happen? Usually, I’m lying in bed desperately hanging on to my last ounce of consciousness to see what happens in some piece of pop fiction. I think a Nook will suffice.

Clothbound Classics by Penguin

Posted on October 17th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment | No Comments »

Allison posted her thoughts on Penguin’s extremely popular series of clothbound classics a while ago. In case you haven’t heard of the series, Penguin decided to publish hardback copies of the classics. This is a high margin item for most publishers because the books are out of copyright and in the public domain. Also, the books are known to be popular collectibles and excellently written.

Allison’s review focused primarily on the cover design. She’s not alone. Since the cover is the first thing people see, it has to be excellent, and Coralie Bickford-Smith‘s designs are as timeless as the writing. Just read what bloggers are saying about her. Look at their reviews of her other book covers. If you’re interested in her work Penguin Classics covers, she has given several interviews about them. Whatever the folks at Penguin are paying her, it’s not enough.

Of course, we shouldn’t judge a book series by it’s cover design; books are meant to be read, rather than just admired on the shelf. It’s more difficult to describe the pleasure of reading a good book than the way it looks. Reading isn’t easily translated to description, as evidenced by the numerous attempts by reporters trying to describe the differences between reading on a Nook or Kindle and reading a printed book.

Many attributes of a book other than the words of the author impact a reader’s enjoyment of a book. Graphic design, typesetting, layout, supplementary materials included, and even the weight of the paper chosen affect the reader. Does the dustcover get in your way? Does the book slip out of your hand? Is it hard to hold the book? Is the paper to fragile or too thick to turn properly? Is the print too small or otherwise difficult to read? Each time a reader notices something about a book other than what the author of the book intended is a sign of bad book design.

For books in the public domain, like the classics, most publishers cut corners on these important attributes, but Penguin’s results are fantastic. The typesetting is superb. The books feel great in your hand. The supplementary material truly adds value to the book.

Later this week I’ll post a review of Treasure Island, which I read this summer. I’ll be sure to address the ways that Penguin’s design decisions on their clothbound classics series impacted my enjoyment of it.

Book: Rework

Posted on October 5th, 2010 in Books, Education, Life | No Comments »

Creative Commons License photo credit: mathieuthouvenin

Rework is a bit outside my normal reading since I’m an academic and not currently in business, but given the amount of buzz this book has garnered, I couldn’t ignore it. It was compiled by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson based on their experiences running 37signals. You may know these folks from popular products like Basecamp or Campfire. You may also know David as DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails.

The book itself is a set of short, contrarian essays on business topics, and I should stress both the ‘short’ and the ‘contrarian’ parts of that description. Many of the essays are adapted, refined, and edited from Signal vs. Noise, the popular blog at 37signals. If you’re wondering whether you should spend your money on something that’s basically already published online, I understand where you’re coming from. It’s nice to have everything in a single, canonical place though.

Reading a book is contextually different than reading a blog, but this is surely the most blog-like book that I’ve ever read. The chapters are extremely short, well-written, and each comes with a reinforcing illustration. These illustrations serve as a somewhat functional, if sometimes jarring, transition from one idea to another. If you’re an avid book reader, I think you’ll find it difficult to get into any sort of reading rhythm simply because this book doesn’t really read like a book, which is probably intended. Having said all that, the chapters are clear and direct. If you read it as if it were a paper-based blog, then you’ll pick up one unmistakably clear and easily understood business idea at a time.

For all it’s faults as a book, Rework is filled with the unconventional business wisdom that makes Signal vs. Noise a popular blog. I wish this wisdom were more conventional. Most businesses (and most business books) are geared towards the ultimate goal of becoming multi-billion dollar empires. Rework shows over and over again just how idiotic that fallacy (and all the crap that it entails) is for actually running your own business. It’s geared towards small business owners and entrepreneurs that want to make a living doing what they love. Jason Fried and DHH are quick to point out that this humble goal is often overlooked. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to do something they genuinely love to do?

If you take the idea of making a living by doing something you love seriously and you don’t mind reading a book that feels more like a blog than anything else you’ve ever seen in paper, then I would highly recommend Rework. If you’re still on the fence, check out some of the popular posts on Signal vs. Noise.