September 14th, 2015 by Mike Fulton
Posted in News & Announcements

Sci-Fi readers, I have a bit of a problem on my hands. I first read Frank Herbert‘s classic “Dune” way back in the late summer of 1979. I loved it and have read it again a couple of times. The last time, though, was probably 20 years ago.

Well, I started reading it again. I’m about 20% in and I’ve noticed some things I don’t think I did before. Or maybe it just seems to make a bigger difference this time around.

The story is showing its age. There are just too many places where the lack of some technology almost makes it seem like the story is taking place in the past instead of the far future.

Since I know how it turns out, I don’t think it’s going to be a fatal problem, but so far, quite a lot of the story seems to be dependent on some rather glaring failures to understand existing technology or predict future technology. I find myself tripping over this more this time around than before.

No Computers?

Dune is set in a distant future where artificial intelligence has been banned because of past problems. This ban apparently extends to just about any sort of computing device, although there are numerous examples of devices which almost certainly have to be using embedded processors.

Herbert offers up the concept of the “Mentat” as sort of a specially trained human computer but the emphasis is entirely on applied logic and observation. The more mundane tasks of a computer, like number crunching or database operations, are ignored and Herbert never explains or demonstrates how such a Mentat would perform such tasks. To be fair, there never is there any significant claim that they actually do, just the vague idea that a Mentat does what computers used to do.

Dune was written by Herbert in the early 60’s when computers were still magical and mysterious to most people. To a typical person of that era, banning a “machine that thinks like a man” would seem to be the same thing as banning any computer at all.

Fifty years later it’s much more clear that the gap between general computing and artificial intelligence, that is to say, true machine sentience, is still pretty darn big.

Furthermore, like most people in the early 60’s, Herbert clearly had no clue how much smaller computers would get to be, nor how they would pervade everyone’s daily lives today.

Imagine a society more advanced and even more dependent on computers and computing devices than we already are. Now imagine them giving them up completely, even though giving up on the idea of artificial intelligence doesn’t really require it. And on top of that, we’re expected to believe this society has interstellar travel and a civilization spread across the Galaxy all without computers of any kind?

The bottom line is, the complete lack of any obvious computing devices in Dune stands out as far more implausible than just about anything else in the entire story.

It’s such a glaring problem, in fact, that when Herbert’s son Brian took over the Dune series several years ago, he wrote a trilogy attempting to explain the whole thing.

No Satellites?

A related issue is how many of the problems they face on Arrakis would have all but disappeared if they had a weather satellite or two, and maybe some GPS. The lack is explained as a combination of extreme cost and politics. Problem is, it’s just hard to accept.

First of all, a GPS array would be one of the first things you put into place when colonizing a new planet. It’s just too darn useful. This is obvious now, of course, but not so much when Herbert wrote the book in the early 60’s.

And, given that these days you could probably build a decent weather satellite in your garage and get it launched with a modest Kickstarter campaign, it’s hard to imagine it was really so difficult or impossible. Especially since they made references to having their own spacecraft.

Ornithopters? Seriously?

And Ornithopters instead of helicopters or variable wing aircraft? Why? Just… why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dune, but it just hasn’t aged well.

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February 13th, 2014 by Mike Fulton

There are Kindle apps for iOS, Android, Windows, Windows Metro and Mac, not to mention the Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader.  Oh, and really the modern Kindle devices, the color ones anyway, are using apps running on a specialized flavor of Android, so let’s count that too. From here out, if I refer to “Kindle” without mentioning a specific version, assume I mean all of the platforms collectively.

On the one hand, it’s nothing short of awesome that Amazon has supported such a wide range of platforms and made Kindle so widely available. On the other hand, it’s also true that the apps are rarely updated with new features.  To their credit, Amazon releases regular bug-fix updates but there are quite a lot of features missing from the apps that would be welcome additions.  Maybe the sheer number of platforms they support is part of the reason why new features are slow in coming.  After all, if you add a new feature to one version, you’ve got to eventually add it to the others as well.

However, the new features do trickle out eventually, so I have to presume someone at Amazon is listening to users’ requests or at least thinking along similar lines.  With that in mind, I’d like to throw out some new ideas.  Or maybe just refresh some old ones.

Support For Multiple Accounts

In a family household, it’s not unusual to have devices that are shared between multiple people.  It would be very convenient if the Kindle could keep track of multiple accounts and let users switch between them more easily.  Allow each account to control things like if purchases can be made without entering the password or not.

Better Parental Controls

Mom needs to be able to hand off her Kindle to her 12 year-old daughter so she can read Pride And Prejudice without worrying about her getting into 50 Shades of Gray instead.  Give parents the ability to mark individual books as being adults-only and require a password to be entered before the book can be opened.

Support For ePub

Kindle’s original file format is based on the Mobipocket format which had been around for several years before the Kindle’s debut.  The AZW format used by Kindle is essentially a MOBI file with digital rights management added on, and the Kindle can still read unprotected .MOBI files.  More recently, Amazon has added a new file format called KF8 (Kindle Format 8 ) which extends the AZW format to provide more formatting capabilities with HTML5 and CSS3.

There are a few other reader devices out there which can read unprotected .MOBI files, but nothing else can read AZW or KF8 files.  And if you own an eBook reader made by someone other than Amazon, chances are it uses the ePub format.  This is an open standard for eBooks created and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum.

Kindle does not support the ePub format. It would be nice if they did.  I’m not saying Amazon should start publishing eBooks in that format, but it would be very useful if the Kindle could at least read ePub files obtained from other sources.

For one thing, ePub files tend to be a bit smaller than the Kindle formats.  It’s not uncommon for an eBook file to take half as much space in eBook format as the Kindle’s native formats.

More importantly, though, there are a wide range of free eBooks out there on the web which are only available in ePub format.  Usually you can run them through a converter like the Calibre software, and convert them into .MOBI files that you can use with the Kindle, but this extra step puts things beyond the capabilities of a more casual, less tech-savvy user.

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August 12th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors, eBook Publishing

Lately I’ve been working on moving most of my belongings into storage in preparation for a move. This has included the boxes and boxes of old paperbacks, Mostly science-fiction and fantasy. My favorite authors typically have their own storage boxes so that I can make at least some modest attempt at keeping everything organized and easy to find.

The other day I ran across the box with the books from Larry Niven. Larry Niven was one of my first “favorite authors” along with Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I stopped for a moment to have a look through the box and rediscovered old friends like Ringworld and the other Known Space novels and short story collections. It occurred to me to imagine how much I would enjoy reading these classics once again. With that in mind, I started browsing Amazon earlier this evening to see what was available in Kindle format and what the prices looked like.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when it turns out that some classic book like Ringworld is not available in e-book format, but as it turns out, I was still surprised! There were some books in Niven’s Known Space series, mostly the short story & novella collections, But novels like Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, and Protector were nowhere to be found.

I know these books are 30 to 40 years old, but it is simply nothing less than a crime to let them fade away like this, especially when so little effort is required to get them into the essentially immortal eBook format.

I realize that some older titles are not available in e-book format because of issues with the publishing rights. Perhaps the author has died and the heirs of the estate don’t even realize that the publishing rights have reverted. Or maybe the publisher doesn’t even know who owns the rights anymore.

However, it’s hard to believe that’s the case in situations like, for example, the David Eddings estate, which is worth millions of dollars. You can bet the people managing the estate know exactly what the publishing rights to his books are worth, and that it would be a good idea to make them available in eBook format, and yet most of his best-selling titles are not available in the US as e-book.

I’m sure there are some situations where it’s a genuine puzzle to figure everything out. I am equally sure that the publishers are rarely making much of an effort to try.

I was also a little disappointed, although again, not really surprised, to see that the prices for the eBook editions from that period of Larry Niven’s career were right up there the same with new release paperbacks. I was maybe, just a little bit surprised. Because recently I’ve seen a trend where older releases are getting ever so slightly discounted by a dollar or two here and there. I suspect in many cases, this is because the author has regained the publishing rights for these older titles, and has self-published them.

That leaves me to an interesting idea. Once a writer has become reasonably well-known, or at least has gained enough of a following to make a living at being a writer, it really doesn’t make any sense for them to live under the thumb of the traditional publishing houses anymore. They can self publish a book on Amazon at half the price of what a publisher would put it out for, and still make more money per copy than the traditional publishing contract would give them.

Publishers really need to buy a clue and get with the idea that it’s not the 19th century anymore. The business model for publishing books needs to evolve, just like the business model for music has evolved. One of the biggest changes in the music market that came about as a result of digital publishing was the realization of how much of the market had to do with sales from the back catalog, as compared with new releases.

When digital music publishing started to take over, one of the less obvious changes was the fact that all the records for all the sales were on computer now. You no longer had to rely on questionable inventory or sales figures taken by hand by workers in record stores. Before you could easily get an idea for how a brand-new release was selling simply by tracking the shipments from the warehouse, but you might not have any idea how well old titles were selling because they were existing inventory that had shipped to the record stores years earlier. Unless it was a perennial bestseller, like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and had to be reordered from time to time, record companies simply didn’t know how well or how poorly the older titles were selling.

But when digital music publishing got started, sales information was available instantly, and with near perfect accuracy. The publishers could now see exactly how well the old titles were selling. And it turned out that the back catalog titles were generating much more income than anybody had realized.

Book publishers don’t seem to have realized that yet. You would think they would have noticed how well stores like Half Price Books are doing, selling mostly used books, in an era when retailers like Borders Books are going bankrupt and Barnes & Noble is struggling to keep their doors open. A big reason for the continuing popularity of used bookstores is the availability of older titles that are no longer in print and therefore no longer available through the main retail channels.

They don’t seem to recognize the sales potential in older titles. There are certain exceptions, like for example Frank Herbert’s Dune manages to come out in some sort of new edition or another on a fairly regular basis, so I’m sure the publisher knows that book, at least, is worth worrying about.

With eBooks, there’s no reason for older titles to be “out of print”. Even if the text of the book is not already available in computer readable form, it only takes a few hours with a book scanner to make it so. From there it’s just a matter of proof reading and a bit of computer work to create the eBook files. The cost per title is minimal, and the break-even point is fairly low.

It took the music industry many years to get a handle on digital publishing and figure it out, but these days they seem to have it figured out for the most part. Here’s hoping that book publishers trip over a clue sometime soon and don’t take quite so long to figure it out.

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