Will it bore you if, like every other Kindle owner, I review my experience? I bought mine because I was going on a month-long voyage overseas. The Kindle is unbeatable for this use case — it’s basically one book and a power cord versus however many tomes you were planning to haul around in your luggage. The only disconcerting thing is that (unlike a computer but like a book) there is no backlight, so if the ambient light is bad — like in a darkened airplane cabin, or on a super-glarey afternoon on the deck of a cruise ship — you won’t be able to read. I want to make it clear that you can easily take your Kindle overseas, you just won’t be able to use Whispernet to get books delivered to the unit wirelessly (although you can still use USB delivery if you have a computer), but everything else should work fine.

It’s pretty clear by now that the Kindle is the suck for texts where it’s an important part of the experience to see charts and graphs, maps, pictures, footnotes, or fixed line breaks (e.g. poetry). Not to put too fine a point on it, all of these will look like crap and/or be impossible to see at all. However I personally read a lot of genre fiction and nonfiction (mostly history), and the Kindle is brilliant for these. In the first case you won’t have the embarrassment of the cheesy covers usually slapped on YA, mystery, SF, horror, fantasy, and romance novels. In the latter you run far less risk of accidental death due to dropping a 15-lb hardcover on your face while you recline in bed.

Without exaggeration I am an exceptionally fast reader… but I think I’m even faster on the Kindle. After having pondered for a while, my theory is this: without intending to, your eye spends a lot of time travelling to the next page when you’re holding two pages open before you. If you eliminate that second page — plus any opportunity of skipping ahead or behind in the text — you actually force yourself to stay on a single page and just focus on reading it as quickly as possible.

There are obvious problems with the physical layout and hardware configuration of the Kindle, most notably that there is no obvious place to hold the unit with your hands. I expect this problem to be solved in the next release. The navigation system, which depends on a unidimensional roller-wheel with clicker, is primitive and unexact in the extreme. I’m not even going to get into the color and resolution issues with the screen, since those were obviously sacrificed to get to the desired price-point.

My true feeling is that Kindles are absolutely not worthwhile for people who read fewer than 24 books a year or buy fewer than 12 books a year — which is almost everyone anyway. Also if you prefer books that require charts and graphs, maps, pictures (esp color), footnotes, or fixed line breaks for full enjoyment, the Kindle will not make you happy. And finally there are localized issues — if you have easy access to a computerized inter-library loan, the relative value of instant books will be less — whereas if you’re basically at the mercy of a small-town system then the relative value might be higher.

Palm Pre lust

January 11, 2009

I’m far from a gadget-hound, but I’m insanely excited about the new Palm Pre. I’ve resisted the many and varied lures of the iPhone, the Blackberry, and the Android (don’t even mention Windows Mobile to me, thanks) — but I’m volunteering to shower my hard-earned cash on Palm. Why?

* Users are super loyal to their favored input devices; aka You can pry my thumbpad from my cold, dead hands.

* Screw AT&T in all its manifestations. That is one brand I have bad blood with, going back a long way. I trust Sprint a whole lot more on the 3G front.

* Hello, Hersheys? The iPhone is like holding a foil-wrapped chocolate bar up to your head to take a call. The Pre looks more like holding a bar of soap to your head.

* Linux core. Given that my last Palm lost its IM client (which I paid money for!) after a year or so, I would like to think the OS would make it easier for Open Source to pick up the slack on apps.

* Apps are allegedly going to be pure DHTML. People who haven’t developed an iPhone app (or paid for one to be developed) do not realize the import of this fact.

I should probably also confess that one of our friends is in charge of the software stack on this new Palm phone. I think that factor has minimal sway with me right now, but full disclosure whatever. I still think it’s an awesome addition to the Palm legacy, and I’ve been a fairly loyal customer for quite a while now.

Historical concreteness

January 4, 2009

In graduate school we were carefully taught that history is the study of texts — the word inscribed by human hands — and that we need not concern ourselves with actual stuff. But now that I’ve travelled far afield for the first time in many years, I’m amazed at what is obvious in situ but not at all apparent on the page.

For instance, I had no idea that so much of what we think of as Greek culture actually happened in what is now Turkey. Troy is in Turkey. Ephesus, with its now-vanished Temple of Artemis, is in Turkey. Herodotus was born in Turkey, and much of his history took place there — unsurprisingly, since Turkey lies smack in the middle of Greece and Persia. Ionia is in Turkey, while Rhodes, Lesbos, and Samothrace hug its shore. Paul of Tarsus — St. Paul to Christians, who wrote and probably spoke in Greek — was from Turkey, and a bunch of his missionary work was in Turkey.

I’m sort of amazed that all of this had escaped my notice, because I’ve always been most interested in the historical construction of identity — how the branches of history are pruned or grafted to tell a particular backward-looking story. Obviously they whole Greek-Turkish thing became a touchy subject as time went on — I can’t say that either the Turks or the Greeks seemed all that thrilled about discussing the subject, and the Turkish ministry of tourism in particular seems to be a hive of total incompetence — but I can’t believe that I studied Greek Thought and Lit for a whole year without even bothering to ask where “Greece” was.

Another inescapable conclusion I reached on my Mediterranean cruise is that concrete — that stuff in between bricks and chunks of stone — is clearly one invention that was necessary for civilization to develop. Without concrete that would set underwater, no aqueducts. Without aqueducts, no plumbing. Without plumbing, it’s awfully hard for cities to grow beyond a certain point. In photos, it’s not all that apparent that the Parthenon is made out of solid chunks of marble but the Pantheon is made of brick with marble facings and Pompeii was largely constructed of brick with plaster on top — but when you walk around the various historical sites, it’s glaringly obvious.

The trip was a salutary reminder to get my head out of the books and the Internet once in a while, and just see the outside world. “Stuff” may not be history per se, but without it you’re left with a very thin and deceptive picture of the past.