Geeks Bearing Gifts

I’ve been slacking off over the holidays. I’ve hardly even read the news, and I’ve had nothing to say even about the Mutallab incident (others have said it all by now, anyway; in particular, Janet Napolitano’s idiotic comment that “the system worked” has been ridiculed amply and deservedly).

As usual, my family gave me books for Christmas — I’m otherwise hard to shop for, as I already have all the material things I need, and everybody knows that books are always welcome.

But I did get one new toy: an Amazon Kindle.

I’ve had mixed feelings about e-readers. I collect books, and have thousands of them in my house. I love the physicality of books, and the way they beckon patiently from their shelves. I admire their technical simplicity: they require no electricity or software for their operation, and work just fine anywhere on Earth. The screen never fails, they need no connection to anything, and their batteries never go dead. The data they contain is stored in a highly stable form that can persist in directly readable form for hundreds or thousands of years. I’ve written about all this before (see here and here), so won’t repeat myself in this post, but let’s just say I’m in no hurry to see books go the way of buggy whips and slide rules, and have qualms about abetting their demise. (With good reason, too: anybody who thinks I’m just being an old mossback should read this.)

But I must admit the Kindle is an awfully appealing gadget. It is elegantly designed, and imperially slim, and it is far easier to lug around than the pile of books I usually take with me when I travel anywhere. It is also much gentler on the eyes than a laptop or desktop screen: it has an “electronic ink” grey-scale display that looks very much like printed paper. It weighs next to nothing, and has a built-in wireless connection that enables Amazon to download books and periodicals directly into the device. Books are typically $9.95, and subscriptions to major newspapers are available too, and even some blogs. (Don’t look for this one anytime soon, however; I hope that isn’t a deal-breaker.)

I’ve only been using the thing for a day, so it’s too soon for me to say whether I’m really going to take to it, or to give it a proper review. I’ve bought one book so far (The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins), and spent a couple of hours last night reading it.

Reading on the Kindle is a breeze. The contrast between the text and the grey screen seems just right (to me at least, though some disagree), and the text is rendered in a soothing font called PMN Caecilia (see here).

There are a few annoyances, however. First of all, it’s easy to lose your place. The device remembers where you were in the book whenever you navigate away or turn the unit off — and you can bookmark the page you’re reading easily enough — but it’s easy to press the wrong button and jump back the the beginning of a chapter, and if you haven’t bookmarked the page you were on you have to step through, page by page, to get back to where you were.

Reading footnotes requires effort also. When you see one on the page, you have to step the cursor up to the link , line by line and word by word, using the little joystick, then click; the footnote will be displayed in a new page, and after reading it you press the “Back” button to return to the page you were on. This is far more work than glancing at the bottom of the page.

It may be, though, that I simply haven’t quite got the hang of this UI yet; there may be shortcuts and best-practices I’m not aware of. I’m sure that operating it gets more and more intuitive the longer you use it. And there certainly are compensatory benefits, like being able to search the text (the printed book’s greatest shortcoming) and to store your own notes, automatically linked to each page. (The thing will also read to you; I haven’t even tried that yet.)

So, the jury’s still out. But I do like this little gadget, I have to say, despite feeling a little guilty while using it.

As long as I am reviewing things, I might as well mention my first impressions of the Dawkins book. He writes as clearly as ever, and is one of the greatest living popularizers of evolutionary theory. The book, whose purpose is to make, once more, the overwhelmingly persuasive case for Darwinism, will of course do a splendid job of presenting the evidence. But Dawkins himself is getting harder and harder to bear: his sneering smugness, haughty scorn, and inability to avoid the nasty little dig are in evidence on almost every page. Whom is he hoping to persuade? If it’s people like me, he really needn’t even have bothered (I’m only reading it because I always learn a thing or two from his books, and enjoy how he assembles his case); if, on the other hand he hopes to convert the 40% of Americans who deny Darwinism on religious grounds, he’s hardly going to win them over by insulting them every chance he gets.

Finally, I think he is unreasonably, even embarrassingly obstinate in his persistent opposition to the now-broadly-accepted idea of group-level selection, a model that he rejects with his usual lack of tact. In particular, he has got into a public feud with the author of Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson, who recently wrote a paper with E.O. Wilson defending the idea. (To see how nasty it’s gotten, have a look here.)

But that’s enough for tonight. I’ll keep using the Kindle, and we’ll see how I like it after I’ve been at it for a while. If it can hook an old-school bibliophile like me, this thing’s going to take over the world.

  1. N.B.: after working for years as a software engineer, I have now officially given up on insisting that “data” be plural, as much as that pains me.

One Comment

  1. the one eyed man says

    I got my wife a Kindle for three reasons: everyone I know who has one likes it, it’s a different kind of Christmas present, and there is no issue of whether or not it makes her look fat. She went from skepticism to enthusiasm in about a day, especially after it passed the acid test (can you use it on a Stairmaster?). I had to think long and hard – should I get her the vacuum cleaner or the Kindle? – but happily things worked out OK.

    Posted December 28, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

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