Archive for September, 2011

So, I read the live blogs of the Amazon announcement and, as expected, new Touch Kindles as well as the Amazon Fire tablet were launched.

The entry level Kindle is now only $79 US.  That is a steal.  I really hope it will encourage more people to read ebooks.  For the full range of new Kindles, please check out Amazon's web page.  Engadget posted a live blog from the event, so I'm not going to repeat all the tech specs.

From my own perspective, my predictions from yesterday's entry were confirmed.  The Amazon Fire tablet looks to be a nice media consumption unit, and at just $199, a wonderful entry tablet.  If I were not already in possession of an iPad, based in the US and not hooked into iTunes/iOS I'd certainly consider it. 

The announcement of the Kindle Touch was what I'd been hoping for and I immediately went online to place my order… only to see that it's only available to US users, as are all other models except the current versions and the new $79 entry one!  Thanks, Amazon.  That is one way to generate interest and then kill it off.

This is not the first time I've had cause to complain about Amazon's US centric focus.  Library lending, ebook lending are all only available to US customers.  Please Amazon, do not forget you have customers beyond the US…

Amazon recently announced a press conference to take place tomorrow, September 28th.  It is widely expected to introduce the Kindle Fire, Amazon's long expected entry into the tablet market.

As per Time, the specs are: based on Android 2.1, but modified to the point of being unrecognizable, Siegler reports. The software will emphasize Amazon's own digital content—movies, TV shows, music, e-books and the Amazon Appstore—with a carousel view of all content on top and pinned app icons on the bottom. The idea is to make content purchases and consumption as simple as possible.

In terms of hardware: According to Ryan Block at gdgt, Amazon's tablet will look a lot like Research in Motion's Blackberry Playbook tablet—a 7-inch slab with sharp corners. That's because Amazon reportedly hired manufacturer Quanta, which designed the Playbook, to "shortcut" the Kindle Fire's development process.

Naturally, everything is speculation until Jeff Bezos gets up on stage and introduces the new product.  Many believe that it will be the first tablet offering to be a serious competitor to Apple's iPad.  Rumour suggests Amazon will be pricing this most aggressively – below cost at $250-$300.  That is half the price of the lowest spec iPad.  Equally importantly, it is considered a serious competitor because of the content that Amazon can provide.  In addition to the ebooks, Amazon provides the Amazon Android App Store, audiobooks, and video on demand.  Naturally, the new Kindle Fire will be setup to access all of this media content.  None of the other tablet providers could come close to matching Apple's content provision until now.

Now, to my comment as to why I personally am unlikely to purchase this new Kindle Fire.   First, I am not based in the US.  This means much of the content is unavailable to me at this point.  Secondly, for the several years, I have been hooked up into iTunes, and more recently, Apple TV for my digital media content. Now, I imagine it would be reasonably simple to transfer my existing content to the tablet, but like many users, transferring 10 years' worth of digital content is a daunting task.  Thirdly, and most importantly, my iPad and I are very happy together.  I do not need another tablet computer.

So, if it's not a replacement for my iPad, could it be a replacement for my much loved and used Kindle e-reader?  No.  The Kindle does one thing only, but it does it fantastically well – read ebooks.  While I have been known to read on my iPad, particularly magazines, the eInk screen on the Kindle makes it much easier on the eye for long form reading.  More to the point, no tablet could match the Kindle's battery life of up to a month. 

Having said that, I do believe the Amazon Fire would be a good purchase for someone looking for a basic entry level tablet to view digital content.  It's just not for me at this point.  With Amazon's return policy though, I may have to check it out.

However…  (yes there is a however) as the Apple Insider has rumours of two new eInk readers to be announced tomorrow too.  This rumour is far from substantiated, but I would be far more interested in the touch eInk "Whitney" model of Kindle than the tablet.  We shall see tomorrow -naturally I shall be posting my reaction to the announcement!

Further to my blog entry yesterday regarding ebook borrowing from the BAnQ in Montreal, I received a very useful and informative reply from them which I would like to share with you:

Thank you for sharing your comments regarding our ebook collections. We recognize that the process includes numerous steps and can be cumbersome at some times. Please find below some information about recent developments in our services.

Finding ebooks on our portal

Regarding the visibility of our ebook collections on our website, we have recently implemented a new page entirely dedicated to ebooks. There is a link to it on our homepage, at the right side (where it says Livre numériques on a green banner). The page has not been translated into English yet, but we hope that our subscribers will be able to navigate our ebook collections easily from this page and will find answers to most of their technical difficulties in the page’s FAQ (Foire aux questions
: This page is updated regularly.

Once you are on the Livres numériques page, you may use the search box to search for ebooks in the Iris catalogue (it is a different search box from the one that you have used on our Online Resources pages). You may also access the Iris catalogue’sAdvanced search screen and check the Numeric books option. All ebooks are indexed in the Iris catalogue. There is, however, a small indexing delay between the appearance of a new ebook in Numilog or EBSCOhost and its inclusion in the Iris catalogue. We strive to keep this delay as small as possible.

Reserving borrowed ebooks

The portal eBooks on EBSCOhost allows users to add their name on a waiting list for an item that is currently borrowed. However, as you mention it, this option is unfortunately unavailable in Numilog.

Transferring ebooks on a mobile device

Dowloading an ebook from Numilog or EBSCOhost on a mobile device is indeed more complicated than it is for a free ebook, especially for the first time. Numilog and EBSCOhost’s books are protected by copyright. Providers therefore must use technological solutions to ensure that copyright will be respected by users. Due to the wide range of technologies currently available on the market and the commercial rivalries that sometimes cause compatibility issues, it is difficult to ensure that the procedure will be clear and simple for every device.

That being said, as you mention it, this technology will likely become simpler and more accessible as more and more people get accustomed to ereading. We value our users’ comments and keep working towards a better service. In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact our reference services if you encounter any other difficulties or have any other comment.

We thank you for the interest you have shown in Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Do not hesitate to contact us as needed.

User services

I checked out the combined search page they mentioned and it did make a big difference to my searching.  That certainly resolved one of my issues with borrowing from the library.  Many of the other frustrations I experienced were not so much the library's fault

All kudos to the library, I was impressed by the depth of information they provided and their level of commitment to ebooks.  I look forward to seeing how things develop.

Amazon recently announced that their flagship Kindle ebook reader was now capable of borrowing from public libraries.  As my ebook budget is a source of, um, friendly banter between my husband and me, this is one functionality that was very welcome to me.  However, at this point, this ability is only available in the US.  

I know from past experience that the Montreal public library, of which I am a member, does have some limited ebooks to borrow, so I decided to check it out.  When I last checked several months ago, the selection available, at least in terms of my preferred genre of fantasy, was extremely limited, especially in English.  Well, it is the main city of Francophone Canada, so I guess I'll forgive it for having most books in French.  In all fairness I believe their selection has improved markedly since my initial investigation 18 months or so ago.

My experience borrowing from the library was painful and I felt it would have been easier to write the darned book.  I am no technophobe by any means, in fact more the opposite, but I found the numerous stages ponderous and unnecessary.  I really hope Amazon's process is much easier.

First step was to go to the homepage of the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec.  

First challenge: where to go for ebooks?  I eventually found it under Online Resources then ebooks.  Okay.  Clearly, ebook lending is not a high priority at the BANQ.  The ebook resource page brought me to a whole list of other resources:

So, to find a book they expect you to click on each of the links to search?  The search box above is less than useless for ebooks.  I searched for Percy Jackson – a book I know is there – and it found nothing.   Eventually I selected the Numlog link and after logging in finally got to a selection of ebooks for borrowing.  I should mention that the website flashed a warning saying that the Safari browser wasn't recommended, but I had no issues with it.

As you can see, many of the books are marked "deja emprunte" – on loan.  That is a positive sign I guess.  The more people in Montreal who borrow ebooks from the library, the greater likelihood of the selection's increasing.  I would have welcomed a link to add myself to the waiting list for some of these, though.  

I selected to borrow Percy Jackson in French and an acsm file was duly downloaded to my computer.  I was already aware that the Adobe Digital Editions software and an Adobe ID were required and these were already in place.  Once entering my Adobe ID I was soon set up to read the book on my Mac.

So far so good.  I knew already that the Kindle is not setup to read ePub format books.  Fair enough.  I did want to get the book on my iPhone and iPad, however.  I hooked my IDevices up to my Mac and in iTunes in the Apps pane I navigated to the acsm file to add it.  

A quick Sync and I thought I'd be able to read the book in my Kobo app or the Bluefire reader.  No, that would have been too easy…  After much Googling I finally understood I had to navigate to the Digital Editions folder on my Mac and upload the epub file to my iDevice.   Once I had understood that I was finally able to read my book on my iPhone and iPad.  

One thing I haven't been able to test is the syncing of the books across the devices.  One of the delights of Amazon's Kindle and Kindle apps is the Whispersync.  I can start reading a book on my Mac at breakfast, then use my iPhone to read on the bus and it will automatically pick up to where I left off on the Mac.  I suspect that will not be possible on this non Amazon lending.  We shall see.

All in all, the process took me well over 90 minutes, although next time it will probably be quicker.

In order to be fair, I decided to borrow a second book directly on my iPad to see if that would be any easier and in all fairness it was.  Once I'd navigated the mess of the ebook resources though the iPad's Safari browser, chosen a book and logged in to the library website I was asked to enter my Adobe ID in the Overdrive application and was soon reading.  

As a comparison of ease of use I bought a (free) book from Amazon for my Kindle.  I went to the Amazon Kindle web page and chose my book.

I clicked on the buy now button:

And within 60 seconds was reading on my Kindle, just like the ad says.  

In general, I would say that the ebook borrowing process at the BANQ is painful at present.  The poor website layout combined with the multi step process makes it discouraging for people to become interested in ebooks.  However, I do believe that this will improve as more and more people become accustomed to ereading.  I look forward to seeing the progress.

Having watched some excellent quality drama recently I decided to review what they had in common.

First of all, it would probably help if I gave examples of what I consider quality television.  It includes, but is not limited to: the Sci-Fi Channel's reimagined Battlestar Galactica, ABC's Lost, HBO's highly acclaimed production of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, and the UK's ITV channel Downton Abbey.  

At first glance, these may not seem to have much in common.  What connection could there possibly be between a futuristic sci-fi drama, a time-travel mystery, a swords and sorcery fantasy series and a period piece set in early 20th century England?  The answer, dear reader, is characters, people in whom we have a vested interest, portrayed by competent actors.  We may not necessarily like the characters, but we do have to want to know what happens to them.  

It is not even a case of identifying with the characters.  I have never been stranded on a mystery island with a Smoke Monster, nor survived a robotic genocidal attack. However, at the core of all of these shows is human interacting with human, humans dealing with situations outside their comfort zone, humans dealing with moral dilemmas, and that is eternal.  Certainly, the special effects/sets/costumes/budgets are incredible, but without that emotional core, they are little more than pretty pictures, nothing to draw us back week after week.  

George R.R. Martin recently drew my attention to a quote by William Faulkner, which goes something like this: "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  I believe that to be true, and for me, for any drama to retain my attention it must have that human core.

Pottermore – At Last!

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Miscellaneous
Tags: ,

Finally after 39 days, 21 hours and ten minutes, my Pottermore welcome email granting me access to the beta site finally arrived.

Pottermore welcome email

As you can imagine, I was rather excited to receive this long awaited missive, and it was well timed as I am on holiday from work this week. 

I logged on straight away and was immediately charmed by the beautiful artwork created for the site.  Much of it is interactive, so that in Chapter 1, for example, when you move your mouse over Professor McGonagall in her cat Animagus form her tail swishes.  The highlights of Book One on Pottermore have to be the choice of your pet avatar, Wand selection, and being Sorted into your Hogwarts House.

When the time came to choose my pet avatar I knew I wanted a cat, being a cat lover.  I was torn between the tabby and the ginger, but the tabby didn't look like my Isis and the ginger had a similar look to Noah, so the ginger it was.  

After purchasing my supplies at Diagon Alley, it was off to Ollivanders to be chosen by my wand.  After answering a few simple questions I ended up with a spruce wand with unicorn tail core, ten inches, quite flexible.  Apparently, spruce wands need a firm owner or they tend to do whatever magic they feel like!

Like many Harry fans, I had already strongly identified with one of the Hogwarts Houses – Hufflepuff.  I believed that that House's attibutes of fairness, and a strong work ethic were most representative of me, so, it was with some trepidation that I entered the Sorting.  J.K. Rowling introduced it in a video, and then it was off to answer the questions.  I answered as honestly as I could, so I was astounded to be placed in Slytherin for the cunning and ambitious?!?  Ah well, Slytherin House has gained a remarkable young wizard – me!  

Another highlight of Pottermore is the additional background information provided by J.K. Rowling herself.  I was particularly touched by Minerva McGonagall's story and amused by Neville's tussle with the Sorting Hat.

At this point the site is currently still in its beta incarnation.  Wizard duelling is still unavailable, potion making is still a kind of hit and miss, and the site is regularly down for maintenance.  Also, the e-book store is unavailable, one of the main draws of the site for me, so I cannot comment on the efficiency of e-book purchasing compared to Amazon.  I suppose that is for a later blog entry.

I stand by my earlier comments – it is a fun site, but I believe the beta has been misshandled.  Of the 1,000,000 beta early registrants expecting access before the end of the month there are only 330,714 currently activated and Sorted.  That leaves a lot of people to go yet.

It hardly seemed less than a week since I was last in our comfortable, if tiny, flat in London, unaware of the existence of Amalisia, nor that my husband was its rightful king.  Yet here I was, staring across the field at my brother-in-law’s army and his dragons.  Let me just repeat that. DRAGONS!  I mean big, scary, fire-breathing lizards – three of them, and not too happy, to judge from the snarls and clouds of smoke drifting over.  What the heck was I doing here?  What could a website designer from Hammersmith hope to achieve against the might of a dragon-backed army?
Then I looked over at my husband, and remembered why I had come to this place.  His brother’s prisoner, chained, dressed in rags and beaten to within an inch of his life, he still retained that quiet, calm dignity and inner strength that had won my heart the first time we met.  I may not be able to do much, but I had to try.
Taking a deep breath to steel myself, I stepped out to confront the new king, ignoring the frantic mutterings from the ragtag little group at my side.  It had to be said, my brother-in-law cut an imposing, charismatic figure.  Over six foot, with short blond hair and a beautiful smile, I suppose I can understand how this charismatic man turned a people against my husband.
“So.  You’re the foreign chit my brother married,” he said, in a voice like pure velvet.
“Yes,” I replied.  “And I believe it would be a very good idea for you to release my husband and restore what is rightfully his.”
His answering snort of derision hit me like a slap across the face.   What if I’d miscalculated?
“And why should I do that?  Are you going to force me with that little army of yours?” 
A ripple of laughter ran through his army.  My own group, bless them, fought back its weariness as every man, woman and child we had gathered in support of my husband stood straighter, grasped his or her homemade weapon and stared back with a determined look. 
I turned back to my brother-in-law.  “I have a powerful protector who will see justice done.”
At that last remark he couldn’t contain his amusement.  “Really?  He must be powerful indeed to face a dragonlord.”
“My protector is a lord of time and space.  He fears no dragons.  I have a message from him.”
At that, I stepped forward, and handed the king my iPhone, pressing play on the video I had selected.  Everything hung on his reaction.  The world seemed to slow to a halt as the video played.  My eyes were fixed on the king’s face.  What would he think?  What would he do?  Would he see through my trick?  It seemed an eternity before the amusement in the king’s eyes turned to puzzlement.  Finally, joy of joys, all the colour in that beautiful face drained away as fear took over. 
Pointing to my husband, the king ordered his release before commanding his army and the dragons to move out.  It was over.
Later that night in our tent, my husband asked me what video I had shown his brother that had turned the course of the war.  Smiling, I handed him my iPhone – thank goodness I’d had it with me the day I travelled to Amalisia – and rewound the video.  My husband’s peal of laughter as he watched Matt Smith as The Doctor telling the Atraxi to “basically… run” was the most heartwarming sound I had heard in weeks. 
“A lord of time and space indeed!”

Spellwright is the debut novel from Blake Charleton and is set in a world where words are magic in a literal as well as metaphorical sense.  It deals with the protagonist's cacography (think dyslexia for the magical language) and his struggles to overcome it and take his place in prophecy.  Nico must learn whether he is the Storm Petrel, destined to change and corrupt language and lead to the demon invasion or the Halcyon, the protector of order in language.

This is my second readthrough of the novel and I'd forgotten just how much fun it is.  The characters are likeable and engaging, the world is believable and there are some amusing scenes such as the Jejunus cursing match.

What I liked:

The magic system: The magic system in this book is well thought out and absolutely fascinating.  The author himself describes it thus:

"Imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat."

In our world, words can create, destroy, heal or wound but only in the most metaphorical manner.  In the world of Spellwright words literally become physical weapons, shields or other artifacts.   Each group of magic wielders has its own unique languages, which they guard jealously from others, and each language has its own unique colour signature and characteristics.

As a former student of languages and linguistics I was especially intrigued by Language Prime. In Charleton's world this is the language of Creation, the language from which all other languages derive.   This reminded me of my studies of language families and proto Indo European, for example, the language "parent" of modern European and Indian languages.  It raises the question for me whether our own world had our own War of Disjunction or if the various languages split over centuries.

I'm not sure that either side of the Halcyon representing linguistic order and stasis or the Storm Petrel as the representative of linguistic error and change are in themselves completely good or bad.   Language is a living, developing entity and needs to change and adapt.  A hundred years ago, in English there were no words for "internet", "computer" or "blog".  Several hundred years ago the word "house" was written "hús."  Are these changes bad?  I don't believe so.   For that reason I feel the Starhaven wizards are misguided to wish to lock their language into stasis.  With the threat of a Pandemonium invasion more than ever they need to be adaptable to change, to evolve; with the strong link between language and society that means their language, too, must change.

Of course, if the Storm Petrel is a Bad Thing because he will mutate language to such an extent and so quickly that basic communication becomes impossible, that is a different matter.  It also has to be said that language has a far greater importance in the world of Spellwright than in our own.  More than a means of communication, it is the basis of the magic upon which their society functions.  Perhaps the coming of the Storm Petrel and the changes in language could be likened to an EMP blast in our world, destroying all electronic devices and communication.

As the Halcyon and Storm Petrel are both within Nico, I suspect his character arc will be about finding balance between stasis and change.
I look forward to reading how this is developed in the forthcoming book.

The worldbuilding: It seems clear that Charleton has spent considerable time creating his world.  Several distinct groupings/races of people are mentioned, each with its own unique customs, language and worldview.  They seem so well-drawn that I can imagine the author has much more information to provide on them in due course.

The magical imagery is absloutely breathtaking: magical words are written in the spellcaster's muscles to become beautiful strings of coloured words and letters before being turned to the use intended.  

The narrative and pacing: For me, this was a real pageturner.  It had a good balance of plot movement, character development and narrative description that kept me wanting to read "just one more chapter."

What I didn't like:

Character development: Several of the protagonists experience life changing events.  Nico learns that his life has been manipulated since before his birth by those seeking to destroy all he holds dear.  Simple John must come to terms with his killing of Devin and the loss of his intellect for so many years.  Deirdre is now forced to serve the demon who masqueraded as her beloved goddess.  The reactions shown seemed to barely reach the surface.  I would have welcomed getting inside these characters' heads just a little more to see how they are dealing with their world's being turned upside down.

Infodumps: There were a few occasions when a significant amount of background information had to be provided, often by the antagonist as the hero was in a tricky spot.  That did come across as Fellwroth's gloating over his briliant plan rather than an attempt to win Nico to his side.  

The second half of Matt Smith's second season as the Eleventh Doctor kicked off last Saturday with an episode entitled Let's Kill Hitler. It was written by show runner Steven Moffat. Following on from my previous entry regarding spoilers I saw this episode completely unspoiled, especially the reveal that Amy and Rory's friend "Mels" was actually one of River Song's regenerations.  In this case I believe being spoiler-free added to my enjoyment of the episode.

Judging from the Television Without Pity forums, this seems to have been rather a divisive episode with some viewers turned off by what they perceived as Moffat's flaunting his cleverness in the viewer's face.  Personally, I really enjoyed it, although it owes a great deal to the charisma of Matt Smith and Alex Kingston playing The Doctor and River Song respectively.  Honourable mentions to Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan.  I really doubt I would have enjoyed this episode nearly as much with different actors.  Alex Kingston in particular appeared to have an absolute blast playing this episode.

So with this episode we've now seen the first and last meetings between River and The Doctor from River's perspective.  We've yet to see the last from The Doctor's perspective, when presumably he gives her the sonic screwdriver seen in The Forest of the Dead.  Why do I have the feeling that'll be for the season finale?  Heck, I can see it my head now;  River casually mentions that the next day she has to go to check out a disturbance at the Library.  The Doctor realises that the next day she will die saving his life, but he can't tell her.   Darn, I can't wait to see Matt Smith play that scene.  He's going to absolutely nail it.  I swear, Steven Moffat, if you don't give me that scene I'll set the Silence on you.   I'm tearing up just thinking about it.  

Ahem, back to the review.  To be fair I can see why some viewers were put off by the constant in-jokes.  The ones I spotted included Hitler's being put "in the closet" (presumably a reference to the Fuhrer's ambiguous sexuality); Alex Kingston re-enacting a scene from The Graduate; "you named your daughter after… your daughter!"; the title's reference to a key trope of time travel fiction – would killing Hitler in the past lead to a better or worse future?  To some extent, it could come across as Moffat's being too clever for his own good.  I suspect the viewer's enjoyment of the episode depended to a great extent on how willing he or she was to overlook that.

What I liked:

The acting:  As mentioned above, Alex Kingston and Matt Smith sold this episode for me.  Enough said

The River/Doctor relationship: Again thanks to the the fantastic acting, I am now heavily emotionally invested in the River/Doctor relationship.  I love the bittersweetness of their out of time romance, and am delighted with anything new in that respect.  I could do without the complication of the Rory/Amy daughter connection.

What I disliked:

The overload of injokes:  One or two to spice things up would have been fun, but enough is enough

The too-sudden shift in River's personality:  Much as I enjoyed watching Alex KIngston play bad girl River, her sudden shift from psychopathic assassin to selfless Doctor lover didn't feel earned.  We are supposed to accept that River endured years of physological brainwashing by the Silence/Eyepatch Lady to turn her into the perfect weapon against The Doctor, a task she carried out efficiently and willingly on their first meeting.  It is rather a stretch to believe that in the course of 30 minutes something happened to break completely that mental conditioning.  No clear explanation was given and that weakened River's whole character arc for me.