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Paper is NOT dead!

For the past few years, I have seen the prophets of doom and gloom telling us that the future of reading is in e-readers. Books, as we have known them for the past few hundred years, are obsolete, and have no future.

Now, I own an e-reader, and I regularly buy and read books on it (and no, it’s not a Kindle). I am not a knee-jerk anti-ebook person, and I see definite advantages to them: the obvious ones of space- and weight-saving. I can take several books on a flight with me; and for reference and non-fiction books, a hyperlinked index and footnotes, and searchability are invaluable.

My objections to ebooks as a total replacement for paper are largely twofold:

Aesthetics. It seems to be impossible to produce an ebook that looks equally good on every e-reader. The professional publishing houses use InDesign as a production tool – Microsoft Word is NOT a layout tool, by the way. Though Adobe include an EPUB exporter with InDesign, the results look different on every reader I try it on. And Amazon, despite being a large technical company, refuses to make an InDesign-to-Kindle convertor available to the latest 2 or 3 iterations of InDesign. No wonder the majority of ebooks I have seen recently are horrible to look at, or contain formatting “features” which would better be described as “errors”.

DurabilityAbbey8.jpg . Of course, bits and bytes don’t decay and flake and get worm-eaten like books do. But… who is going to promise me that in 25 years’ time, the Kindle titles I purchased at enormous cost will still be readable, except on lovingly-restored and maintained Kindles from the 2010s? When was the last time you played an 8-track tape cartridge? Do you even know what one of those is?

Kindle, let me remind you, is one company’s proprietary standard (8-track tape cartridges weren’t!), as much as Windows, MS-DOS, or even OS X (though both Microsoft and Apple have become much more open in their approaches). But if Amazon folds as a company (and remember, this is a company that doesn’t post profits, and has less than transparency in its account reporting), where does that leave the future of Kindle?

Not to mention the idea that the company selling you the ebooks may have the power to remove them from your device.

But in my case, the readership seems pretty wedded to paper – not just paper, but hardcover. For the first time ever (I think!), the number of paper copies of my books sold on Amazon US has exceeded the number of Kindle sales (according to Novelrank, anyway), and this includes a significant number of hardcover compilations.

I’m glad – we took a lot of trouble over this, and it seems to have paid off.

You may buy this book from Amazon, by the way

Numbers aren’t everything…

60.jpgToday is the first day of the rest of my life (as well as Junichiro Koizumi, David Bowie, Kim Jong-un, and it would have been Elvis Presley – and another 360th of the human race) – yes, it’s an important day in terms of numbers, but also in another sense.

The post the other day on Facebook and Twitter about the opthalmologist wasn’t just a silly pun – I was recommended to go there by an optician when I went along to see about new glasses. I had very bad news from the preliminary diagnosis (glaucoma in both eyes, a mild cataract in one, and severe intraocular overpressure in both). As you can imagine, that was scary news.

However… the pressure responded to medication in one day, and a second visit has confirmed that as long as I keep using these eye drops, the glaucoma will not get any worse than you might expect from ageing, and that the cataract won’t need attention for a few years yet.

So, I feel somewhat reborn as I enter the third lap (I’m not going to say “the final stretch”).

Disruption isn’t always good

Just been reading, thanks to a Facebook post, some interesting things about Airbnb, the “hotel replacement”. Sure, some of these complaints also apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to hotels, but usually to a lesser extent.

For example, if you are staying in a hotel that is a member of the SuperLodge™ chain, and your belongings get stolen from your room by the cleaning staff when you are out for the day, there is a chain of command, there is a set procedure, and more important than anything else, SuperLodge has a reputation. Remember “United breaks guitars”? An Airbnb host (or guest) rips you off? Tough luck, it would seem. Airbnb has no control over its hosts, and telling the world that Mrs. Ethel Scroggins of 15 Willow Lane, Scunthorpe (sorry, Ethel, for using your name here) is a thief is going to achieve little more than a spell in a libel court.

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These “under-the-radar” industry distruptive services such as Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, (basically little more than databases when it comes down to it, and are hardly worth the billions that they are valued at) pose problems that have yet to be solved, which currently can only be solved by fairly strict regulation (think “red flag carried in front of horseless carriages”) – at least in the initial stages.

The companies tend to be started by tech types who are often less than fluent in the niceties of society, and tend to ignore any problems that are not technical. They receive initial and mezzanine funding from VCs who are likewise uninterested in anything other than ROI, and their IPO shares are purchased by speculators who are only interested in a quick buck.

Eventually, they may or may not succeed as business models, but they have a long way to go when it comes to the non-business aspects, it seems. Yes, they help to shake up monopoly industries, and yes, they may be convenient for consumers. At the same time, the problems that they pose will almost certainly come back to bite them in the backside, unless they take the trouble to see themselves as part of a greater whole, rather than as a clever technical solution to a problem that no-one ever knew existed in the first place.

For the meantime, we seem to be watching a bubble expand, where a large database application is worth more than an industrial plant. Maybe time to hide the gold under the mattress until Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, and their wannabe clones come out of their infancy and achieve a certain measure of social (as opposed to technical) maturity.

Review: Richard III – the King in the Car Park

Richard III: The King in the Car ParkRichard III: The King in the Car Park by Terry Breverton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I really don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Anyone want my copy? It’s not a history book, but a list of prejudices. Of course history is about opinions, rather than fact but making Henry VII out to be one of the greatest of English monarchs is stretching one’s preconceptions to breaking point. Richard is judged and found guilty of seemingly every noble death that occurred at the time he was alive, regardless of any other factors, while the brave Henry Tudor is seen as the saviour of the English throne.

No bibliography, no index, and a style that the word “turgid” might have been invented for. Not recommended, even if you are a confirmed Tudor supporter. There are better uses for your money, and better books that criticise Richard III with a little more flair and panache (not to mention accuracy).

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Still relevant?

NewBGSI wrote Beneath Gray Skies some time ago, in the GWB era, in fact, at a time when it looked as though the USA was sliding towards becoming a society that I described as the fictional Confederacy of the 1920s.

For those who have yet to read the book, it describes a state of affairs where the American Civil War was never fought, and where the Confederacy survived into the 20th century, forming an alliance with everyone’s favourite historical monsters, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or Nazis).

The book attracted quite a few comments, from both sides of the political spectrum, with one one-star review calling me a “flaming liberal” and suggesting that selling tickets to my burning in effigy could solve the US national debt crisis. Others questioned the idea of a mere Brit criticising aspects of the USA. And still others thought the book was a highly appropriate view of today’s America, transplanted to a past that never happened.

And then Obama got elected, and it seemed that sanity had prevailed, and that the USA had adopted different values to those I had ascribed to my fictional 20th-century Confederacy. Beneath Gray Skies was no longer appropriate or relevant when it came to describing today’s USA.

But now? The country seems to be fracturing – remember that I am looking at it from the outside, and I only see what is reported by the media and by my friends in America (and I have a lot of American friends, including those with whose political views I disagree):

  • A large part of the country as a whole (maybe not the executive leadership) still seems to be fixated on military rather than diplomatic solutions to international problems.
  • The gerrymandering and the blatant corruption of politics by corporate interests has led many to describe the USA as being no longer a democracy.
  • The horrendous incarceration rate (and abuse of police powers), with the enormous racial bias, and the privatisation of the prison system and its prison labour, seems to be almost a de facto reintroduction of slavery.
  • Xenophobia is obviously rampant among a large part of the population.
  • And the “right” to bear arms, as guaranteed by a constitutional amendment, seems to be interpreted by a noisy portion of the population in a way that appalls most of the rest of the world (and many US citizens as well).

These are NOT universally held values within the USA, of course – but they are way outside the mainstream views of many societies, and they basically correspond to the values I attributed to the 1920s Confederacy. So, Beneath Gray Skies – relevant still? I think so.

Mr. Holmes – impressions from a Sherlockian author

I’d wanted to see Mr. Holmes for some time, and I got my chance when I flew back to Japan yesterday (or the day before – things get confused going west to east). I haven’t read the pastiche on which the film is based, A Slight Trick of the Mind, so I came to it completely unbiased as to what to expect in the way of fidelity to the canonical figures.

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I saw it on a smallish screen, but excellent quality, and listened through my own headphones, which provide better quality sound than the ones provided by the airline. The experience was therefore somewhat different to what it would have been had I watched it in a cinema, or even on a TV, but the nature of the film is a an intimate internal experience, almost a parlour piece, and so this way of viewing worked, possibly drawing me in closer than a big screen would have done.

As a 92-year-old man, frightened of the loss of his mental faculties, Ian McKellen is excellent. Having lived alongside a man in his 90s (with no trace of dementia), the physical depiction of age was excellently done.

But what is more important is the depiction of the breaking down of the finest mind in Britain, and the tragedy of watching a man I now know intimately, suffering with the knowledge that the source of his strength and his pride is now failing, leaving him with nothing.

To watch a man who boasted that it was a hobby of his to have an intimate knowledge of the streets of London, now aware that he is unable to remember the name of the person with whom he has recently had a conversation is a tragedy, and it brought tears to my eyes at times. The interplay between the aged detective and his young fan was fascinating and touching, and the acting of both worked extraordinarily well.

SPOILER ALERT

The following contains some references to the details of the plot. If you have yet to see the film, you may not want to read on.

To me, some of the most revealing parts of the whole story were the ways in which Sherlock Holmes the man looked at the literary creation of his friend, who bore a passing resemblance to the real person. The deerstalker, pipe, and so on were seen by Mr. Holmes as being purely John Watson’s and the illustrator’s creation (though whether even the 1947 Sherlock Holmes would have referred to his deceased friend as “John”, I am unsure. The idea of 221B being a fictitious address is one I cannot go along with, however.

My personal belief is that Holmes would have made it clear to Watson exactly what parts of his adventures and of his character he wanted publicised, and though he may have publicly decried the over-dramatic style in which his exploits were described, Watson’s stories were, in fact, heavily edited by Holmes they were sent to Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For cases to come to his door (and hence for him to make a living), Holmes would have wanted his real address to be clearly advertised and stated. In Mr. Holmes, Holmes presents a different view to the one I have taken – keeping up the old appearance to the end? Or perhaps his memory failed him as to the reasons for the differences between the real facts and the published accounts.

The journey to Japan – interesting – but I felt less than plausible for a man in his 90s to have made at that time. Though, of course, there is an element of exotica in the “prickly ash” story, the Hiroshima reference was overly symbolic, in my opinion. The back-story behind it – again, possible, and the addition of Mycroft as Britain’s de facto spymaster very plausible, but it somehow failed to ring true.

As to the adventure of the 70-year-old almost-retired Holmes – only just plausible, but not a case that would necessarily grip me on its own. I found the psychology to be unconvincing, and Holmes’ skills to be less than evident. The glass harmonica was nothing but a red herring, in my opinion, and the motives of the principals were muddled and unclear.

However, the final scene, where Roger is nearly killed, redeemed Holmes and his deductive skills in my mind (as no doubt it was meant to).

Overall, a film well worth seeing in itself, and an interesting take on the way in which Sherlock Holmes might have ended his days.

Review – A Cat, A Man, and Two Women

A Cat, A Man, and Two WomenA Cat, A Man, and Two Women by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quite frankly, I’m not typically a fan of Japanese literature (heresy, I know, to all those who spend their time examining the minutiae of Meiji novels, etc.). For the most part it doesn’t tell a story, and I like stories.
However, this was a pleasant surprise, in that there actually were stories – or rather half-stories – in this book.
Dr. McCarthy’s prose works well – it’s fluid and natural, and doesn’t get in the way, as is the case sometimes with translations. The stories themselves work nicely, though they do seem to end halfway through the plot, leaving you, the reader, to work out how things will resolve themselves.
I am unsure whether the stories will appeal to those who don’t know Japan as an insider, but to me, they are (amongst other things) fascinating glimpses of a past world I have only heard about as the memories of older people.
Recommended, but don’t expect a page-turner.

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